Prime Minister Ariel Sharon faces a new obstacle to his plan to evacuate settlements in the Gaza Strip and West Bank: right-wing rabbis who have ruled that dismantling settlements contravenes Jewish law. The rabbis are calling on soldiers to disobey orders and on settlers to forcibly resist evacuation.
Given the potential for confrontation, the army and police are training special forces to carry out the evacuation, and there is even talk of building detention camps for settlers in case of mass resistance.
The Israeli right wing is split on the issue, and left-wing politicians are warning the rabbis against creating conditions like those preceding the 1995 assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when some settler rabbis made religious rulings that seemed to condone violence against the prime minister.
No evacuation is scheduled to take place until next year, but the mood on both sides already is tense. In its worst-case scenarios, the defense establishment is not ruling out that some settlers will use guns against Israeli troops, and some legislators have warned settler leaders against following a path that could lead to "civil war."
The latest rabbinical ruling came from a former Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Avraham Shapira, now head of the Rabbis' Union for the Complete Land of Israel and one of the National Religious Party's most influential spiritual leaders.
In answer to a question from a follower, Shapira came out unequivocally 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, referring to one bloc of Gaza settlements.
"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 Jewish religious law, he 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 by the Yesha rabbinical council, which declared that "no man, citizen, police officer or soldier is authorized to help in uprooting settlements."
Not only the rabbis are taking a militant stand. In a mid-June interview with a national religious publication, Uri Elitzur, editor of the settler journal, Nekuda, 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 added that he would grant his "complete understanding to people who harm those who come to evacuate them."
Coming from a man who served as former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bureau chief and who ran the National Religious Party's last election campaign, sympathy for violent opposition sent shockwaves through the political system.
Peace Now and legislator Avshalom Vilan of the Yahad-Meretz Party urged Israel's attorney general to prosecute Elitzur for incitement to violence.
Ilan Leibovich of the Shinui Party told Israel Radio that "Uri Elitzur has lost his mind and must be stopped immediately before he starts a civil war."
Even Social Affairs Minister Zevulun Orlev, leader of the National Religious Party's more moderate wing, dissociated himself from Elitzur, insisting that Elitzur doesn't reflect the position of the national religious movement.
On the contrary, Orlev said, "we distance ourselves from any threat of civil war and bloodshed, as from fire."
What happens on the ground could depend to some extent on the National Religious Party's leadership. But the party's two senior figures, Orlev and party leader Effi Eitam, are sending out mixed signals.
Eitam resigned from the government over Sharon's plan to evacuate settlements, while Orlev stayed on. Moreover, Eitam is championing legislation to bar the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) from participating in the evacuation of settlements, while Orlev says the government has the right to use the army as it pleases.
In marked contrast to Eitam, who says soldiers from Orthodox or settler families would face an impossible dilemma if ordered to evacuate other settlers or even their own families, Orlev insists that "the IDF must carry out government orders without reference to the political beliefs of its soldiers. If it starts choosing assignments according to political beliefs, that would constitute an existential threat to the State of Israel."
The question is to what extent will settlers take their cue from National Religious Party leaders, and whether they will heed the moderates in their own leadership.
Bentzion Lieberman, chairman of the Yesha settlers' council, echoed Orlev when he said 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."
But will settlers listen to Lieberman or to the radical rabbis? And what about settler extremists who, even if a minority, are bound to oppose evacuation with violence and create considerable mayhem?
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz estimates that thousands of settlers will resist evacuation forcibly, and the IDF is taking into account the possibility that settlers will use firearms.
The army and police both are training special forces to deal with expected settler resistance. The plan at present is for the soldiers to cut off the areas being evacuated and for the police to do the actual evacuating. A team planning the evacuation, led by Sharon's national security adviser, Giora Eiland, even is considering building detention centers for settler resisters who break the law.
A decision on the first evacuations is scheduled for March. As the date approaches, signs are that the clash between government and settlers will go beyond anything seen in Israel until now.
To avert this, voices of reason and conciliation will have to come to the fore. But for the time being, it's the radicals who are getting louder by the day.
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