Sunday, December 16, 2007

The New Focal Point of Israel's Schisms


If a compromise is reached as a result of the Annapolis peace negotiations, Israel will be expected to withdraw from at least some of its settlements in the West Bank. The Israeli government in all likelihood will rely on its military, the Israel Defense Forces, to organize, oversee, and perhaps even force this evacuation. This is what they did in Gaza in 2005.

Moreover, Israel will rely ever more on the IDF during and after any withdrawals as Hamas continues to grow as a military problem for Israel, as Israel's northern border continues to be threatened by Hezbollah, and as control over major portions of the West Bank are handed over to the Palestinians.

But the IDF may have difficulties carrying out its tasks. One group of growing influence inside the IDF — religious nationalist soldiers — may refuse to carry orders that call for evacuating their own homes and families from the West Bank.

This apprehension has given birth to a debate over whether the military can rely on the religious nationalist soldiers, who reside in West Bank settlements, for this undertaking. This is not a marginal concern. Unlike the ultra-orthodox, or the Haredim, who do not serve in the army out of religious conviction, the religious nationalists have served in the IDF since the early decades of Israeli statehood.

In recent years, members of this camp have begun to volunteer for the most demanding and dangerous combat units. They now serve in disproportionately high numbers in the IDF's elite units and in its combat officer corps. Though it is difficult to ascertain how many of the soldiers and officers in the IDF come from the national religious movement, Bar Ilan Professor Stuart Cohen estimates that during the second intifada (2000-2002) the overall number of religious Zionist soldiers — as defined by those who wear knitted caps, or kippah seruga — in the infantry units may be roughly twice their proportion of the Jewish male population as a whole. According to other estimates, more than 50% of the elite combat units now are drawn from the religious nationalist sector of Israeli society.

Voluntary military service has always been the most visible expression of Zionist commitment and contribution to the nation — thus forming a key aspect of "ownership" of the nation. Until recently, "ownership" of Zionism was said to be the privilege of the sons of the Kibbutzim because its adherents were at the forefront of building the Israeli state and because they dominated all levels, units, and ranks of the Israeli military.

But that "ownership" is passing to a new group as the face of Israel's military shifts. Settlement building and military service allowed the religious Zionist camp a chance to develop its own identity, and, in its mind, to become equal in importance with the Zionist founders of the state. And as the Zionist ideal lost some of its lustre for the secular Israelis, the settlers came to view themselves as the torch carriers of the Zionist vision.

As Israel's self-proclaimed leading Zionists willing to sacrifice for the state, the settlers are distressed by the possibility of further evacuations. Their anger has caught the attention of many in Israel. Despite the almost entirely peaceful disengagement of 9,000 settlers and 21 settlements from Gaza and Northern Samaria in August 2005, there is no guarantee that a future evacuation will be uneventful.

Since the Gaza disengagement and the subsequent violent clashes between the police and the settlers during the evacuation of the West Bank settlement of Amona, the settlers now realize that if necessary, Israeli governments will use their full power to remove them from their homes. This prompted many religious nationalists, whose sometimes illegal settlement activity was often ignored by the state, to re-evaluate their close relationship with the government. Their perceived broken trust between them and the state has led them to adopt the slogan of "we shall not forgive and not forget," to convey that the trauma of the Gaza evacuation is still alive in their minds even if it has not been given full expression yet.

The most likely manifestation of the settlers' anger following future withdrawals will be IDF soldiers' refusal to carry out military orders. At the time of the Gaza disengagement, there was discussion of the degree to which the religious Zionist community is woven into the IDF — and how a conflict between the "sword" (military obligation) and the "scroll" (religious duty and devotion) would play out during the disengagement.

Despite statements issued by prominent religious nationalist rabbis calling on soldiers to refuse evacuation orders, the low number of military refusals proved the religious nationalist soldiers' commitment to the military. This, however, could change with future withdrawals.

During the 2006 Lebanon war, after Prime Minister Olmert stated that a victory in Lebanon would provide the impetus for another disengagement in the West Bank, leaders of the religious national settlement movement, rabbis, and thousands of settlers, sent word to their sons in the military telling them to disobey military orders that would take them to war.

Given this level of anxiety and the seriousness of these threats based on a limited withdrawal, one might expect broad-based refusals of religious national soldiers if they are ordered to remove most of the settlements in the West Bank. This could substantially fracture the IDF.

The parties gathering in Annapolis may have opened the door to a resumption of the peace negotiations and possibly a final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. While many in Israel are looking to Annapolis with hopeful eyes, future withdrawals may turn Israel's defense forces into the focal point of the country's schisms.

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