March 5, 2012
In Israeli military, a growing Orthodoxy
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IN THE SETTLEMENTS
Memories are still fresh of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, in which dozens of religiously observant soldiers were disciplined for refusing orders to remove settlers from the coastal enclave. How might a similar plan to quit the occupied West Bank fare?
Some religious soldiers worry that Israel’s demolition of unauthorized settlement buildings in the West Bank may lead to the forced removal of all settlers. A few soldiers have staged spectacular public protests, violating the separation of army and politics required by law. In late 2009, for example, infantrymen disrupted their own swearing-in ceremony at Jerusalem’s Western Wall by hoisting a banner declaring that they would not help raze settlements.
The agitprop has extended to vandalism. Three soldiers were arrested in December on suspicion of damaging West Bank property - both belonging to Palestinians and to an Israeli military garrison - as part of so-called “Price Tag” attacks designed to signal to the government it will “pay” for curbing settlers.
“As men who believe in the inviolable sanctity of the Whole Land of Israel climb that ladder of command, possibilities loom that are worse than refusal: outright mutiny, even decisions by senior officers to deploy their units to prevent withdrawal,” said Gershom Gorenberg, author of “The Unmaking of Israel,” which examines the political clout of pro-settler religious Jews.
“In a democracy it is critical that the army is totally subject to the decisions of an elected government and that there is not concern that other political or ideological groups have an influence on the decisions made by soldiers or officers,” Gorenberg said.
But in Eli, a predominantly Orthodox settlement deep in the West Bank, mayor Kobi Eliraz dismisses talk of a religious takeover of the army. Almost one in 10 Eli households is headed by career soldiers. The settlement houses a bustling seminary where religious youths can study for a year between high school and the draft, and around half of whose alumni go on to become officers.
“There’s a joke that whenever there’s an IDF operation on, Eli empties of men,” Eliraz, a former Jewish seminary student and infantryman, said.
Indeed, two residents from Hayovel, a smaller town governed by Eli, have died leading military operations in the past seven years.
The Israeli government lists Hayovel as an illegal outpost. What would residents there do if the Israeli government moved in to destroy it?
Mayor Eliraz, himself a Hayovel resident, reckons that is unlikely, but answers the question with studied graveness.
“We would exhaust all legitimate means to block it, but if worse came to worse, we would comply,” he said. “We completely identify with the state. We aren’t coming to change it.”
At the same time Eliraz, Gorenberg and others foresee change coming naturally, as religious communities increase in relative size and influence.
“I just assume that the same will happen in the IDF as in wider society,” Eliraz said in his office overlooking the craggy hills around Eli.
Gorenberg said it was up to the military brass to maintain religious troops’ respect for the chain of command and ethical codes. “The army has to take a stronger stand against refusing orders and political expression,” he said. “There is no trend that is irreversible, and no factors are fixed in stone.
For infantryman-turned-reporter Daniel, that’s a frightening prospect. The military leaders from Israel’s nationalist-religious community are excellent, he says. “There won’t be any question about them knowing how to fight the Syrian army or Hezbollah. But in Israel, the military has other roles, like evacuations.” A military split between the secular and the religious “is destined to fall apart.”
Edited by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith
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