TEL AVIV — Tensions between the religious settler community and the political mainstream reached into the army’s General Staff and boiled over this week, in an unusual confrontation that could be a sign of things to come as the July date nears for disengagement from Gaza.
The eruption came at a meeting of senior officers convened Monday to discuss disengagement tactics. With hundreds of colonels and generals in attendance, including Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon, a paratroop brigade commander rose and openly attacked the powerful chief of Israel’s Central Command, Yair Naveh.
“You have betrayed us, sold us out to the settlers,” said the paratroop officer, Lt. Col. Guy Hazut, according to an account in Yediot Aharonot. “Nobody covers our backs, and the honor of both the army and the police is being trampled.”
The cause for Hazut’s extraordinary outburst was a sympathetic letter from Naveh to the residents of Yitzhar, a settlement near Nablus known as the home of some of the most extreme settlers in the West Bank. Naveh had written the letter in response to a press interview with one of Hazut’s company commanders, detailing a clash between his troops and Yitzhar settlers.
Company commander Maor Shoshan described an incident last month in which his paratroopers were under orders to evacuate an illegal outpost near Yitzhar. After the operation, the settlers decided to take revenge: They cut off the water supply to the troops guarding them, then sneaked into their compound and punctured the tires of Shoshan’s jeep. They even drew guns on one of the soldiers, though the soldiers are under orders not to respond to settlers with force.
After the story broke out, many in the army expected Naveh to react harshly against the settlers. Instead, he wrote them a letter of apology. “I believe the good name of the people of Yitzhar and the settlers in general was smeared,” he wrote. “The IDF will continue to embrace them as pioneers.” The letter drew widespread ire among field officers, who said that Naveh had betrayed his troops and kowtowed to lawbreakers.
The altercation reported by Shoshan was not the first or last clash between settlers and soldiers in Yitzhar or elsewhere. Several days after the jeep incident, on Purim, soldiers interrupted a group of Yitzhar residents while the residents were throwing stones at Palestinians in a nearby Arab village. The settlers cursed the soldiers, and one reportedly tried to run over a soldier. Fleeing back to their settlement, they blocked access to pursuing troops by placing spikes on the road, puncturing the tires of eight jeeps.
“I have no fear going into a Palestinian village, but I fear going into Yitzhar,” Hazut told Naveh at the headquarters meeting. “There are outlaws in there, and they are a threat to my life and the life of my troops. Everything Maor Shoshan said was true, and instead of receiving support he was abandoned.”
Tensions between the army and settlers in places like Yitzhar, Tapuah and Hebron are nothing new. But as the disengagement draws near, field officers say that they appear to be rising to a new and dangerous level.
Naveh is widely believed to owe his appointment as Central Command chief to the politics of disengagement. He is an Orthodox Jew, one of only three members of the General Staff to wear a yarmulke. He was appointed in February to his post, one of the army’s three top field commands and the one most responsible for direct engagement with West Bank settlers. The posting is believed to reflect a desire by Prime Minister Sharon to put Orthodox officers and civilians in sensitive spots where friction with the mostly Orthodox settlers is expected as disengagement approaches.
In addition to Naveh, Gershon HaCohen, who was born in a religious home and is a graduate of one of Israel’s best-known yeshivas, was appointed commander of the brigade that will operate in the so-called inner ring of evacuation in Gaza. Yonatan Bassi, a prominent figure in the religious kibbutz movement, has been running the civilian Disengagement Authority for the past few months.
With or without an Orthodox background, generals such as Naveh have a delicate duty to perform. They must use enough force to dissuade extremists from illegal actions, while trying not to alienate the main body of settlers. In the ranks there is a high proportion of religious officers — estimated at more than 50% in some combat units.
Religious soldiers are under intense pressure from pro-settler rabbis who have openly called on them to disobey orders and to refuse to participate in evacuation. Intelligence sources fear that some soldiers will take the next step and join the resisters, as one sergeant did during a January outpost evacuation near Yitzhar.
Sharon and his strategists appear to be looking to religious commanders like Naveh to serve as models for the religious soldiers and settlers alike, following the “weep but obey” philosophy offered by some religious leaders. At the same time, many secular soldiers and officers resent what they see as the overly tolerant attitude exemplified by Naveh’s letter.
Characteristic of the army’s delicate situation was Ya’alon’s response to Hazut’s outburst. Rather than chide the midlevel officer for attacking his superior, the chief of staff said: “We do not embrace these people. We only embrace law-abiding settlers.” Ya’alon had already reprimanded Naveh for his letter. But the chief of staff, set to leave his post June 1, knows that the incident might be only a sign of things to come.