JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Sharon faces a new and growing threat to his plan for evacuating settlements in Gaza and the West Bank: Right-wing rabbis who have ruled that dismantling settlements violates Jewish religious law. Some rabbis are calling on soldiers to disobey orders and on settlers to resist evacuation forcibly.
With major rabbinic figures weighing in, including a former chief rabbi and the respected Yesha settlers’ rabbinic council, Israel’s security chiefs have begun planning for what could be serious confrontations. Special forces are being trained to carry out evacuation in the face of what some warn could be armed resistance. There is even talk of building detention camps for settlers in case of mass resistance.
The National Religious Party, the main voice of Modern Orthodoxy in Israel, is badly split on the issue, with two of its six Knesset members favoring leaving Sharon’s coalition and resisting the disengagement while the other four insist on staying put. Politicians on the left, meanwhile, are warning that the rabbis could be re-creating the overheated atmosphere that preceded the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
The latest rabbinic ruling came from a former Ashkenazic chief rabbi, Avraham Shapira, now head of the Union of Rabbis for the Greater Land of Israel and one of the National Religious Party’s most influential spiritual leaders.
In answer to a question from a follower last week, Shapira came out flatly against any evacuation of Jewish settlers in Gaza. “It is clear and obvious that, according to the Torah, handing over parts of our holy land to non-Jews, including parts of Gush Katif, is a sin and a crime,” Shapira wrote. Gush Katif is a Gaza settlement bloc.
“Therefore, any thought or idea or decision or any semblance of action of any kind to evacuate residents from Gush Katif and hand the land over to non-Jews is opposed to halacha,” or rabbinic law, Shapira wrote. “Therefore, nothing must be done to assist the eviction from their homes and land, and everything done to prevent it.”
Shapira’s call followed a similar ruling last month by the Council of Rabbis of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, which declared that “no person, citizen, police officer or soldier is authorized to help in uprooting settlements.”
Not only rabbis are taking a militant stand. In a mid-June press interview, Uri Elitzur, editor of a settler journal and onetime bureau chief to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, declared that “the uprooting of a settlement is illegal and shocking and therefore justifies refusal to obey orders and violence, excluding the use of firearms.”
Elitzur, who managed the NRP’s last election campaign, added that he would have “complete understanding for people who harm those who come to evacuate them.”
Elitzur’s remarks sent shockwaves through the political system. Veteran Knesset member Avshalom Vilan of the Yahad-Meretz party urged the attorney general to prosecute Elitzur for incitement to violence. Another lawmaker, Ilan Leibovich of Shinui, said Elitzur “must be stopped immediately before he starts a civil war.”
Minister of Social Welfare Zevulun Orlev, leader of the NRP’s moderate wing, rushed to distance himself from Elitzur, insisting that the journalist doesn’t reflect the position of the national religious movement.
What happens on the ground could depend to some extent on the NRP’s leadership. But the party is divided into rival camps behind its two senior figures, Orlev and party leader Effi Eitam.
Eitam quit the government over Sharon’s plan to evacuate settlements, while Orlev stayed on. Eitam is now pressing legislation to bar the military from participating in evacuating settlements, while Orlev says the government may use the army as it pleases.
The question is to what extent settlers will take their cue from NRP leaders, and whether they will heed the moderates in their own leadership.
Bentzion Lieberman, chairman of the Yesha settlers’ council, warned in an interview that “uprooting settlements and expelling Jews is a historical and moral crime, but refusing to obey an order is an existential threat to the State of Israel.”
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz estimates that thousands of settlers will resist evacuation forcibly, and the army is planning for the possibility that some will use firearms.
The army and police both are training special forces to deal with expected settler resistance. Current planning calls for soldiers to cut off target areas while police do the actual evacuating. An evacuation planning team, led by National Security Advisor Giora Eiland, is considering building detention centers for settler resisters who break the law.
A decision on the first evacuations is scheduled for March 2005. As the date approaches, signs are that the clash between government and settlers will go beyond anything seen in Israel until now.