As the scheduled start of Israel's Gaza withdrawal approaches, settler leaders are raising the specter of mass refusal by religious soldiers to carry out orders, and are warning of disastrous consequences for the Israeli army and society as a whole.
But high-ranking Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers said settler leaders are exaggerating in an attempt to scare the government and to encourage soldiers to refuse to evacuate settlers from their homes.
On Monday, the anticipated evacuation drama was played out in microcosm as soldiers and police dismantled the two mobile homes that made up the unauthorized West Bank outpost of Shalhevet Yitzhar. There were scenes of violent settler resistance, a call by a soldier to disobey orders and wide-scale arrests.
The refusal controversy has sparked a national debate, at the heart of which is the issue of state sovereignty vs. rabbinical authority. The debate raises worrying questions: If there is widespread civil disobedience and refusal to carry out army orders, will Israeli society be dangerously divided? Could such a rift scuttle the withdrawal plan?
There have been cases of left-wingers advocating refusal to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip or to carry out missions in populated areas, but those calls for disobedience never approached critical mass. On Sunday, however, settler leaders called a meeting with IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon to warn of an impending crisis.
The settler leaders said that they are against soldiers refusing to obey orders. However, after rulings by settler rabbis excoriating Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's withdrawal plan and expressly forbidding soldiers to participate, thousands of religious soldiers probably would choose to obey their rabbis rather than their army commanders.
"The writing is on the wall," one settler leader was quoted as saying. "The rabbis have spoken, and there is nothing we can do about it."
They said Sharon has only himself to blame for the situation, because he failed to build a wide national consensus for his plan. The fact that his policy lacks legitimacy in settler eyes only encourages refusal, and they want the army to help stop the erosion, the settler leaders said.
Sharon, for his part, warned Israeli settlers not to attack troops who evacuate them.
"Do not dare raise a hand against soldiers," Sharon said Wednesday during a visit to a West Bank army base. "If you want to lay into someone, lay into me. Lay off the Israel Defense Forces."
It wasn't clear just what the settler leaders expected the army to do. In an earlier meeting with the IDF high command, Ya'alon made it plain that the army takes the refusal threat very seriously, but has no intention of buckling in the face of pressure.
On the contrary, Ya'alon said the army's main challenge for 2005 is to make sure that the withdrawal plan is carried out to the letter.
"As tough as it might be, we will have to be very firm, because failure to implement the decisions of the political echelon will put us as a nation and a society at risk," Ya'alon said.
Top IDF field commanders say they have encountered little evidence of impending mass refusal. Nevertheless, the army is calling for help from Israeli politicians. The generals say it's up to the political echelon to set the tone and create the conditions for tough action against settlers and soldiers who refuse orders.
Sharon got a boost Wednesday when the religious United Torah Judaism party agreed to join his new coalition, clearing the way for a broad national unity government and seemingly preventing new elections. The party, which seeks to sustain state subsidies for religious causes, said it would join forces with Sharon despite objections to his withdrawal plan.
An inkling of what may lie ahead came Monday at Shalhevet Yitzhar. Even that small outpost proved a handful to dismantle, and it went down only after an angry, three-hour skirmish.
Moreover, though one soldier did call on the others to disobey orders, there was no mass refusal at Shalhevet Yitzhar. How will the army and police cope when large, bona fide settlements are uprooted -- and if significant numbers of soldiers refuse to take part?
In the public debate, most speakers have come out strongly against refusal to obey orders. Some of the most outspoken critics are from the same national religious camp as the potential dissenters.
National religious Jews, who make up most of the settler population, serve in the army and take strong right-wing positions, face the most acute dilemma: On the one hand, they see settling the Land of Israel as a necessary step toward the coming of the Messiah, and they accept rabbinical rulings; on the other, they're loyal to the State of Israel and its institutions.
While the settlers tend to emphasize the primacy of rabbinical injunctions, other movement leaders and intellectuals elevate the authority of the state. For example, ex-Gen. Yaacov Amidror, the first religious Jew to serve on the IDF general staff and one of the national religious movement's most articulate spokesmen against disengagement, makes a clear distinction between refusal by men in uniform -- which he says is always illegitimate -- and civil disobedience, which he condones.
In a democracy, Amidror said, it's totally unacceptable for army personnel to refuse to do the bidding of the government, to which they and the army are subordinate. Mass refusal, Amidror said, will pose a greater threat to the state than withdrawal -- which, he believes, is a huge strategic blunder.
Similarly, Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar Ilan University, where the faculty and student body is made up mostly of national religious Jews, maintains that most of the religious Zionist movement is against refusal, and he urges the camp's leaders and rabbis to speak out strongly.
"All those who are against must speak out so that history will not judge them for remaining silent at such a crucial time for the state they helped to build," he declared in an Israel Radio interview.
Writing in the newspaper, Ma'ariv, journalist Bambi Sheleg, also a member of the national religious camp, came out strongly against the way many religious Jews subordinate their own judgment to that of the rabbis.
"Under the cloak of 'Torah ruling,' the smartest people suppress their independent views and their capacity to interpret reality as they see it," she wrote. "To be an observant Jew, you don't need a rabbi to think for you. A rabbi can decide on matters of kashrut, Shabbat and excommunication; he cannot decide for us on questions of life and death, especially when they are national questions."
In Yediot Achronot, political scientist Shlomo Avineri developed the same argument. A secular, left-wing Jew, Avineri maintained that rabbis should not have any special say in matters of state, because the Jewish religious law they rely on was developed for the Diaspora, not for conditions of national sovereignty.
"In matters of state, the halacha [Jewish law] has nothing to say, because it was developed -- and that's its power and glory -- at a time when the Israeli people did not have a state of their own," he wrote.
Criticism from the left reflected public impatience with the settlers. Labor Party legislator Ophir Pines-Paz accused settler leaders of hypocrisy for claiming to be against refusal but doing little to discourage it.
In fact, more and more pundits are calling on the government to set a final withdrawal date. After that, they say, settlers who decide to stay in their homes will have to fend for themselves, without IDF protection or government responsibility for their fate.
Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.