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In Withdrawal

For years, Israel's religious Zionists have sought a greater role in the army. Now that they have it, many wish they didn't.

Major General Elazar Stern paces before several hundred cadets at the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) combat officers' training school and strokes his knitted skullcap. Stern, commander of the IDF's personnel branch, is one of the army's highest-ranking officers. 

And yet his demeanor and appearance are casual. He avoids the microphone at the podium on stage and instead stands at ground level facing the cadets, whose various colored berets identify them as paratroopers, artillerymen, and combat engineers. Avoiding military formality, they ask Stern about the moral dilemmas of fighting the war on terrorism and about how to increase the motivation of young Israelis to serve. So far, though, no one has dared ask the question that is on everyone's mind: How will the army deal with the possibility that large numbers of right-wing religious soldiers will refuse to carry out next summer's planned withdrawal from Gaza? Stern looks around the auditorium--where at least one-quarter of the young men are wearing the knitted skullcaps of religious Zionism--and says, with a broad smile, "Doesn't anyone have questions about the issue we haven't discussed?" 

The reticence is understandable. No one here, especially a religious soldier, wants to be identified as a potential conscientious objector. The army has made clear that refusal to participate in the Gaza withdrawal will be treated as insubordination; just recently, a candidate for officers' school was rejected after declaring he would refuse to evacuate settlements.  

Finally, a soldier whose purple skullcap matches the infantry beret tucked in his epaulet approaches an open microphone. "What does the army think about the withdrawal?" he asks. 

"The army doesn't think its position is relevant," Stern says. 

"Even about the security aspects of withdrawal?" 

"Even about the security aspects. The army made its opinion known about withdrawal from Lebanon until the democratic government decided to withdraw [in May 2000]. Once a decision is made, the army will do everything--everything--to fulfill the government's policy. I know soldiers who have defended settlements they don't believe should exist. It's not easier to die for a settlement you don't believe should be there than it is to evacuate it." 

A secular soldier notes that, for the left, the army isn't moral enough, while for the right, it's no longer Zionist enough. "Is Israeli society still behind us?" he asks. 

"In this room are all the contradictions of Israeli society," Stern replies. "Secular and religious, new immigrants and veterans, Bedouins and Jews. The army is the meeting point of clashing values. Your dilemma at a roadblock [in the territories] is between respect for the value of human dignity and the value of protecting lives from terrorists. The withdrawal also presents us with conflicting values. But there's no such thing as one army that defends synagogues and another that defends discotheques; one army that eats kosher and one that doesn't; one that protects settlements and one that evacuates settlements. We've been in that story before. How long did [ancient] Jewish sovereignty last? Each camp then thought that its position was right. The result was two thousand years of exile." 

The threat of massive conscientious objection on the right is the worst internal crisis the IDF has faced since the early years of the state, when then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion crushed two ideological militias, sinking the right-wing Irgun armaments ship, the Altalena, and disbanding the Marxist combat unit, the Palmach. The organized refusals could complicate the Gaza withdrawal, a difficult operation that the army estimates will take about two months to complete. Worse, massive refusal would destroy the army's role as Israel's last unifying institution, perhaps provoking counter-refusals on the left to defend settlements. And, if thousands of religious soldiers do carry out their refusal pledge, the result will not only be catastrophic for the army, but for religious Zionism. The refusal issue is the cruelest dilemma the religious Zionist movement has ever faced, pitting the community's two main achievements of this generation--building settlements and assuming leadership roles in the army--against each other.

For all the media hype in recent years about left-wing conscientious objection, like the letter from reservist pilots opposing targeted killings of terrorists, no more than 500 left-wing soldiers have refused to serve in the territories during the current war. By contrast, 20 times that number of recruits and reservists have signed a petition declaring their intention to refuse to carry out orders to evacuate settlements. And a parallel petition is circulating among religious twelfth-graders about to be drafted. 

Ironically, the current refusal movement is coming from the sector of Israeli society most passionate about military service. An estimated 30 percent of combat officers and soldiers are now religious Zionists--twice their percentage in the general population. Indeed, in the last year, three Orthodox Jews, including Stern, have joined the IDF's general staff, until recently entirely secular. On a Shabbat morning at Training School One, as officers' cadet school is known, the synagogue is so crowded that many soldiers must pray outside. Like kibbutzniks a generation ago, religious recruits have become the group most ideologically committed to serving; their motivation has helped the army win the war against terrorism. 

At a recent anti-withdrawal rally of Israeli youth from the West Bank and Gaza, thousands gathered in a park across from the Knesset, holding banners imprinted with the names of their settlements. Booths sold knitted skullcaps and game boards about the land of Israel; a band played rock music with liturgical lyrics. When I asked a group of twelfth-graders about to be drafted what they intended to do in the army, the unanimous response was, to join "the best combat unit I can get into." Only one teenager said that, if the withdrawal happens, "this won't be my army anymore." And, in numerous conversations with combat soldiers at the rally, most said they wouldn't risk jeopardizing their military careers by refusing outright to follow orders; instead, they intend to ask to be reassigned to nonconfrontational roles, like supplying water for other soldiers. 

That, in fact, is what happened the last time the army evacuated settlements, in Sinai in 1982. Soldiers who asked to be reassigned were given minor supporting jobs. Over the years, some commanders have allowed left-wing soldiers who opposed serving in the territories to do the same. In Gaza, though, the number of soldiers likely to request exemptions will be so large that the army won't be able to comply. So far, the IDF has granted exemptions only to soldiers who live in settlements slated for removal, though the policy may be extended to soldiers who live in any settlement. 

The army may be reaching the limits of its flexibility. "We're considering several steps that will make people understand the seriousness of refusal," a senior military source says. The first step could be a confrontation with hesder, the unit that combines army service with yeshiva study. Rabbinic heads of five hesder yeshivas--out of some 40 hesder programs, with a total of 3,000 students--have endorsed the call of the most senior hesder spiritual leader, former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, to disobey withdrawal orders. Most hesder heads have remained silent, and that has been understood in the religious community as tacit opposition to Shapira. According to the military source, those hesder yeshivas promoting refusal will be shut down even before the Gaza evacuation begins as a warning to potential refusers. The army recently canceled the right of hesder students to serve in separate units, though for now, they will still be permitted to spend most of their service in yeshiva study. Stern, who has long advocated disbanding separate hesder units, insists the move has nothing to do with the Gaza withdrawal, but few within the religious Zionist community are convinced.

If soldiers' refusals to participate in the Gaza withdrawal endanger the cohesiveness of the IDF, they also threaten to undo many of the gains made by Israel's religious Zionists in the past decade. In recent years, the religious Zionist community has been split between cultural moderates, who participate in secular culture and have even produced a religious feminist movement, and conservatives, who mimic the stringent observance and separatism of the ultra-Orthodox. Though the moderates are a majority, massive refusals would pull the community closer to self-ghettoization. Indeed, voices calling on religious Zionists to separate from a supposedly hedonistic Israel that is betraying its pioneering roots are growing. And some are even invoking the rhetoric of the most extreme ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists--challenging the basic premise of religious Zionism, which sanctifies the Jewish state as the harbinger of the messianic era. A recent op-ed by Professors Arieh Zaritsky and Nissim Amzallag in Hatzofeh, the religious Zionist daily, called for "unilateral withdrawal from the state of Israel, including surrender of our Israeli citizenship." One leaflet circulating among settlers adds, "Their flag isn't our flag.... [The Zionist state] is a rebellion against God, a war against the Torah, the land of Israel, and the people of Israel." 

Moderates who place a higher religious value on Jewish unity than on maintaining a Jewish presence in all the territory of biblical Israel are fighting back, circulating petitions among religious soldiers affirming their intention to fulfill orders. One leading opponent of withdrawal, former General Yaakov Amidror, wrote an op-ed in Maariv comparing refusers to the ancient Zealots who, during the Roman siege of Jerusalem, burned the granaries of rival factions in the starving city. 

Within the army, discussions like Stern's meeting with the cadets are becoming routine. And religious officers are taking the lead in explaining to their men why the government must be obeyed. Indeed, secularists who have worried that the "penetration" of religious Zionists into the officer corps will politicize the army got it backward: Religious officers, committed to the IDF and to preserving their own positions, may well be the army's best guarantee of unity in the ranks. 

Still, even many cultural moderates may be unable to carry out orders--not for religious or even political reasons but because they will refuse to drag fellow Israelis out of their homes. Most religious Zionists believe that withdrawal, while technically legal, is democratically illegitimate: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, after all, won the last election on a platform opposing unilateral withdrawal and then lost a Likud referendum on the issue. At settler demonstrations, "dictator" is the most popular pejorative on anti-Sharon posters. Religious Zionist leader Effie Eitam, a former commander of Israeli forces in southern Lebanon who does not see refusal as an existential threat, nevertheless warns that poor morale among soldiers will thwart the army's ability to carry out the withdrawal. "It is the duty of officers to tell their superiors that the lack of an esprit de corps is as fatal to fulfilling this mission as it would be to go to war with defective guns," he says. 

Stern, for his part, is convinced that most religious soldiers will fulfill the order to uproot settlements. "It's hard? I know: My son studied in Atzmona [a Gaza settlement]. Now he may have to evacuate the homes of people he knows, maybe his rabbi. It hurts? I hope it will. Even for those who want to dismantle settlements. We hope we'll have many soldiers crying. Crying but evacuating."

Yossi Klein Halevi is a contributing editor to The New Republic and a senior fellow of the Shalem Center in Jerusalem.

By Yossi Klein Halevi