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Orthodox officers lead military revolt against withdrawal

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Orthodox officers lead military revolt against Israeli withdrawal

January, January 3, 2005

TEL AVIV The planned Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in 2005 will have to overcome mass disobedience from within the military, including the General Staff.

Officials said the opposition to the withdrawal stemmed from the rising influence of Orthodox Jews in the military.

Many senior officers are Orthodox Jews and have objected to the military's participation in the withdrawal operation.

So far, about 5,000 people have signed a petition saying they would not participate in any military operation to expel Israelis from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. Organizers said the number of standing army soldiers, reservists and officers who would disobey orders could increase by ten-fold over the next six months.

The threat of a mass disobedience has included the chief military rabbi, Brig. Gen. Yisrael Weiss.

Weiss, under pressure to resign by withdrawal opponents, said he would quit his post if instructed by his mentor, former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira. Shapira has already called on soldiers to refuse withdrawal orders.

"If it actually comes down to it [withdrawal], I will consult with the Torah leaders and will hear their counsel," Weiss said. "At this point, there is no point in firing up the public by making various statements that have no immediate significance."

Deputy Defense Minister Zeev Boim said the military would fail in its mission should thousands of soldiers refuse orders to evacuate the Israeli residents. Boim and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Moshe Ya'alon appealed to withdrawal opponents to halt their campaign to encourage soldiers to refuse expulsion orders.

"If this is the picture, it will be very difficult, even so that the military would be unable to carry this out in accordance to the instructions of a democratically-elected government," Boim said.

Officials said the military would be torn between orders to expel the Israelis from their homes and battling Palestinian insurgents. On Sunday, the military sent around 50 main battle tanks and armored personnel carriers in the northern Gaza Strip to stop Kassam-class short-range missile strikes against Israel. Less than 24 hours later, the military was ordered to withdraw.

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has examined a series of recommendations to facilitate the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank and the expulsion of about 10,000 Israeli residents from these areas in September 2005. The recommendations envisioned the prospect of massive resistance within the army, particularly from Orthodox Jewish officers and soldiers.

Mofaz was said to be examining a recommendation that would end the sponsorship of military preparatory academies for Orthodox Jewish students. Many of the academies, located in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, have produced cadets who have become officers and soldiers in elite combat units.

Mofaz has examined a four-stage plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank. The plan was scheduled to begin in June 2005 and completed by the end of the year, but military commanders have expressed doubts whether this could be implemented.

"It is the biggest and most difficult mission we have ever undertaken," a senior Israeli military source said.

Officials said the military was authorized to plan and direct the expulsion of the Israelis in what could turn out to be a bloody confrontation. They said the military would use special police units to actually remove the Israelis from their homes.

The report to the defense minister warned that the academies were producing officers and soldiers more loyal to rabbis than to the military tradition. There are about a dozen such Orthodox military academies in Israel, financed by the Defense Ministry and Education Ministry.

Officials said Mofaz was warned that rabbis in these academies were encouraging their students to refuse orders to evacuate Jews from their homes. They said Mofaz was urged to halt financing to at least two such academies.

At this point, aides to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have played down the prospect of massive disobedience within the military. They pointed to Sharon's meeting last week with brigade commanders in which they did not report any trend of disobedience.

Israel's government was considering major changes in the military to facilitate a withdrawal .

Officials said the changes could end more than 15 years of rising influence by Orthodox Jews and Israeli residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the military. The measures could also reduce the recruitment of Orthodox youngsters into elite combat units.

"The prime minister said that in approximately two weeks, the Cabinet will hear the position of the security establishment on this issue and by then the decision-making process will have been formulated," a Cabinet communique said on Sunday.

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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