Army Preparing Religious Soldiers For Confrontation

Published April 15, 2005, issue of April 15, 2005.
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JERUSALEM — The Israeli military released an educational packet for field officers this week, designed to help them prepare their troops — especially religious soldiers — for the pressures they will face during the evacuation of settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank, due to begin in July.

The so-called Officer Explanation Kits include a 150-page booklet and two CD-ROMs featuring the army’s Code of Ethics, the history of settlement in the territories and Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Much of the material focuses on the debate over refusal to obey orders, including dramatic video testimony of soldiers who served in past evacuations — in Sinai in 1982 and at West Bank outposts this year — despite their religious devotion to the territories.

The question of discipline among religious soldiers has soared to the top of the national agenda in the past week, following a declaration by a former intelligence chief that Israel faced a risk of a “military putsch” because of the growing number of religious soldiers whose first loyalty is not to the state but to their rabbis.

“Religious soldiers are among the best fighters we have, but if messianic ideology grows stronger among them, if soldiers really do not return to their units after Passover, it will be only the beginning, and the next step will be a coup,” said former Mossad intelligence service chief Danny Yatom, currently a Labor lawmaker. He was speaking at a public forum last Friday at The Land of Israel Museum in Tel Aviv.

Yatom’s comments sparked angry responses from the religious right. Zevulun Orlev, head of the National Religious Party, called the remarks “incitement against the religious nationalist public, which has no need to apologize for its loyalty to the state.”

Religious soldiers make up about 30% of the army’s field ranks. Nearly all come from the so-called national-religious stream, whose rabbis have lined up heavily against the Gaza-West Bank withdrawal. Two former chief rabbis of Israel, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu, have led calls for soldiers to disobey orders, likening participation in the evacuation to Sabbath desecration. About 10,000 reservists have signed petitions vowing to refuse orders to evacuate settlements.

“The majority of the General Staff will soon be religious,” Yatom, the former Mossad chief, told the Tel Aviv forum. “The pre-army yeshivas drill into these kids the necessity of obeying the rabbis, who today call for mass refusal and tomorrow perhaps for more. There’s the real fear of a military coup that may involve bloodshed, and armed units battling each other.”

Yatom’s fears are widely shared. Prime Minister Sharon himself, speaking in an NBC television interview this week, described the current mood in Israel as akin to “the eve of civil war,” although he did not single out the religious community for blame.

Religious opponents of the disengagement plan have mounted a form of psychological warfare in recent weeks, blocking major highways, planting dummy bombs and padlocking public schools in Tel Aviv. Heads of military intelligence and the Shin Bet internal security service have warned repeatedly of plots by Jewish extremists to assassinate the prime minister or, alternatively, to blow up the Temple Mount in hopes of sparking mass violence.

Fears of a Temple Mount attack reached a peak this week, as a Jewish group calling itself “Ten Thousand” announced a mass Sunday rally there and Palestinians threatened to respond with violence. A confrontation was prevented when police closed the shrine to Jewish visitors. The Shin Bet afterward raised the threat level on the mount from 7 to 8. Police Commissioner Moshe Karadi traveled to Jordan the next day for a semi-secret round of meetings on coordinating Temple Mount security. Palestinian newspapers were filled all week with militant calls to “defend” the mount from “the Jews,” further raising the mood of tension.

In response, security officials have begun cracking down in ways that have sparked protests from religious leaders. In one case, officers guarding an appearance by Sharon in Eilat last month were accused of systematically turning away Orthodox Jews.

This week’s military education initiative was described as the first step in the army’s effort to address pressures on soldiers preparing to evacuate settlers.

“We have to invent a new dictionary for an operation against your own citizens and brothers,” a senior officer said, describing the initiative.

The officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, called fears of a military coup “ridiculous.” Cohesion within units will counteract ideological and religious tensions, he said.

The army has labeled the disengagement operation Shevet Achim, or Brethren Dwelling, a phrase from a folk song, “Hineh Mah Tov,” which is drawn from Psalm 133: “How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”

As currently drawn up, the operation will rely on active-duty troops and police officers and will not include citizen-reservists. No distinction will be drawn between religious and secular soldiers, officers say. However, Gaza residents will not be required to participate in evacuating their own settlements.

Operational plans call for personnel to work in five “concentric circles,” with unarmed police officers “knocking on doors” and “touching the residents” of settlements. Soldiers will deploy in the outer circles, blocking movement between settlements, preventing Palestinian violence and sealing off the territories from Israel proper.

A joint team of army, navy, air force and police commandos will be standing by for deployment in case of armed conflict. The operation will take about eight weeks. Those who refuse orders will be court-martialed.

According to the officer, soldiers are now undergoing classroom training to prepare for the pressures. “We want a higher level of openness,” the officer said. “If someone says, ‘I will disobey,’ we won’t put them directly in prison. We will try to create an opportunity for soldiers to express their feelings, because I don’t want to encounter this feeling at the last minute. I want the ability to influence him.”






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