|To Obey Orders or Obey God|
- Monday, August 8 2005, 20:51:50 (CEST)|
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To Obey Orders or Obey God
Religiously observant Jews and even secular Israelis serving in the army are forced to make tough choices as the Gaza withdrawal nears.
By Laura King, Times Staff Writer
KISSUFIM CROSSING, Israel — The young Israeli soldier blinked, but did not flinch, when the bearded settler standing nose-to-nose with him spat out a single sentence: "The Nazis were just obeying orders too."
Moments later, a young woman, her long skirt grazing the ground, approached the same soldier, speaking in gentle tones. "You are my brother," she told him. "How can you even think of tearing us away from our homes? Don't help do this…. Refuse orders. Refuse."
The soldier, sweat sliding down his face in the noonday heat, stood his ground at the dust-choked, flyblown main checkpoint leading into the Jewish settlements of the Gaza Strip.
But Israeli commanders are wondering how many others heeding the admonitions of settlers or wrestling with their own beliefs might refuse to play any role in the dismantling of Gaza's 21 Jewish settlements, a drama that begins in nine days.
So far, fewer than 100 soldiers have been brought up on disciplinary charges for refusing orders in connection with the Gaza withdrawal. That represents a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands who are playing some part in the drawn-out process of emptying the Gaza settlements of about 9,000 Jewish inhabitants.
But the specter of mass refusal has preoccupied senior commanders for months. In roadside tent camps and sprawling air-conditioned bases, conscripts are being closely watched and specially trained, sternly warned and solicitously counseled against breaking ranks.
For young Israelis, mandatory army service is a national rite of passage. The military serves as a kind of social glue, a common touchstone for the most disparate of lives and backgrounds.
Few Israeli institutions command such universal respect. Military service is also something of a family affair: At any given time, most Israelis have some relative either on active duty or in the reserves, for which men are called up well into their 40s. As with armies elsewhere, loyalties forged under fire can last a lifetime.
Publicly, the military is expressing confidence that only a handful of soldiers will refuse orders.
"Such actions are taking place on a small and controllable scale," the army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, said last month.
Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, the head of the army's southern command, which is responsible for the Gaza withdrawal, echoed that comment: "No one should doubt the ability of the Israel Defense Forces to stand strong."
By far the most notorious case entangled with refusal of orders has been that of 19-year-old Eden Natan-Zada. After deserting the army because of his opposition to the Gaza withdrawal, he gunned down four Israeli Arab civilians on a bus last week and was then beaten to death by a mob.
Much more typical is Avi Bieber, a fresh-faced 19-year-old corporal who was sentenced last month to 56 days in jail for disobedience.
Bieber made headlines in June when, in the midst of an army operation to clear abandoned buildings in a Gaza settlement that protesters had taken over, he suddenly contorted his face and shouted the slogan of the anti-withdrawal forces: "A Jew does not expel a Jew!"
Before a gaggle of TV cameras, he cursed his commander and urged others in his unit to join him in refusing orders. None did, though several were visibly shaken when he was led off to jail.
Bieber's parents, immigrants from New Jersey who live in a West Bank settlement, declared their pride in his actions. He swiftly became a heartthrob of teenage settler girls who have spent the long, hot summer protesting the withdrawal. Right-wing websites proclaimed him a hero, and a settlement in Gaza named a street after him.
Spurred by that case and others, the army has been taking a tougher stance toward those who refuse orders, especially if they are veterans rather than raw recruits.
A captain in the military's technology and logistics division is facing possible criminal indictment for disobedience, and a brigade chaplain who urged his soldiers to refuse orders is expected to be sentenced to prison, even though he later expressed regret and recanted.
The Yediot Aharonot newspaper last month reported that with the pullout approaching, commanders of military prisons had quietly been ordered to quadruple the number of places available to hold detainees.
Dissent within the ranks is not a new phenomenon in the Israeli military. The long and divisive conflict in Lebanon spawned an antiwar movement that included many soldiers who had served there. During the last five years of the Palestinian uprising, or intifada, almost 500 soldiers, most of them reservists, refused to join their units in the West Bank or Gaza because they believed the Israeli occupation was inflicting undue suffering.
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