JERUSALEM — An American-born Israeli soldier was court-martialed this week and sentenced to 56 days in jail after refusing to participate two days earlier in the demolition of deserted settler homes in Gaza.
New Jersey-born Avi Bieber, a 19-year-old corporal, was convicted on three counts of refusing to carry out an order during the June 26 operation, threatening and insulting a commander and giving media interviews against army regulations, a military spokeswoman said.
“The soldier shouted profanities at his commanders and incited other soldiers to disobey orders. He was arrested and will be disciplined in the manner [in which] the IDF deals with such cases. The IDF will not tolerate such behavior under any circumstances,” the commander of the Gaza Division, Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi, told a press conference at military headquarters in Gaza before Bieber was sentenced.
Bieber’s parents, who were not at the hearing, said that their lawyer would appeal the verdict.
“We are very upset. It is a very harsh judgment… We support our son very much,” they said in a statement read over the telephone by a neighbor in their name.
Bieber was arrested during an operation Sunday in which his unit dismantled a group of abandoned shacks near the settlement of Shirat Hayam in the Gush Katif bloc in southern Gaza. The 11 shacks, remains of pre-1967 Egyptian officers’ housing, were near a beachfront hotel that has been taken over and fortified by right-wing settler activists in recent weeks. The shacks were targeted because of intelligence reports that the militants were planning to occupy and fortify them in the coming days, officials said. Defense officials fear that the hotel will become a base of violent resistance on August 15, when the main withdrawal from Gaza begins.
During the operation, activists from the hotel were alerted to the army’s presence and rushed to the scene. Scuffles ensued in which 21 people were injured, including five soldiers, five police and 11 civilians.
When the scuffles began, Bieber announced that he would not participate in the demolition, declaring himself a “conscientious objector.”
Speaking to reporters afterward, Bieber said: “Some nine years ago, as a child, I immigrated to Israel with my family from the United States. We didn’t come to the country to expel Jews from their homes. I didn’t enlist in the IDF in order to destroy communities or prepare the ground for the destruction of communities. I enlisted in the IDF to defend the state, and this action is not the role of the IDF.”
In 1996, Bieber’s family moved from Passaic, N.J., to the West Bank settlement of Efrat, south of Jerusalem. They later moved east to the nearby settlement of Tekoa.
Bieber’s father, Rafael, said Monday that his telephone was constantly ringing with callers praising his son’s actions. “Many people from all over the country have telephoned me to say that what he did was a good thing, that he had spoken from his heart, and that many people felt the same way.”
“I received a call from someone in Brooklyn who told me that everyone there is with us,” the older Bieber said, adding that the caller told him that footage of his son had appeared on television stations WNBC, WABC and WCBS in New York City.
According to Bieber, politics was not behind his son’s actions: “He’s a human being. He saw that his commanders were beating Jews, and he’d never seen anything like that in his life. He did not do this because of politics. He did it because he is sensitive, and because he cares, just like you would care if you saw someone beating someone else.”
Bieber’s mother, Michelle, said that she did not believe that her son had been influenced by the rulings of pro-settler rabbis who have urged soldiers to disobey orders. “It was his conscience that told him that this purposeless evacuation, which is taking place without a public mandate, and contrary to everything Prime Minister Sharon spoke about before the elections, is flawed from a value and moral perspective,” she said. “It was his conscience that told him that we came to the Land of Israel to settle it, and not to prevent Jews from settling it or to deport Jews from it.”
“Our boy showed the entire country just how much he loves the State of Israel,” his mother said. “We raised him to love the country, and we hope that others will follow in his footsteps.”
The army declared Sunday’s operation a success, after leveling the 11 shacks. However, politically the operation was seen widely as a victory for the rightist activists, given the widespread public revulsion afterward at the sight of Israeli soldiers battling religious Jews.
A group of militants were reported to have set up camp on the ruins of the shacks and to have declared a new settlement outpost, Tal Yam. Military sources dismissed the outpost as insignificant.
For weeks, defense officials have been nervously eyeing the militants in the hotel, many of whom are former activists in the outlawed Kach movement of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Relations have been particularly tense since an exchange of gunfire June 18 with a group of Palestinians on the beach left three Palestinians injured. Each group has accused the other of starting an unprovoked attack. Military officials want to bring in several of the Jewish militants for questioning in the incident, but after an initial raid last week, they have been unable to gain entry to the hotel.
Police were said to be negotiating with the hotel residents to hand over the suspects as recently as Sunday, the day of the demolition operation.
Prime Minister Sharon and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz have met with Defense and Justice ministry officials in the last few weeks to discuss how to deal with the residents of the hotel.
Militants gathered outside military headquarters in Gaza to protest Bieber’s arrest. At the protest, a well-known right-wing extremist, Itamar Ben-Gvir, was detained for questioning, Israel police said.