In the largest act of military insubordination since 2005's disengagement from the Gaza Strip, a group of Orthodox soldiers from the Kfir Brigade on Monday refused direct orders to participate in the planned evacuation Tuesday of two Jewish families from the Hebron marketplace.
OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni immediately ordered disciplinary measures against the 12 soldiers - including two squad commanders - and some of them were sentenced on Monday night to 28 days in prison. Shamni also decided to dismiss the soldiers from their combat units.
In his decision, Shamni said the soldiers' refusal to obey orders "undermined the basic foundations of the IDF."
Sources in the Central Command said Shamni acted swiftly to teach the soldiers a lesson and in an effort to prevent additional acts of insubordination ahead of future evacuations.
"If such a large number refuse orders over the Hebron marketplace, then we can only imagine what it will be like during a larger-scale evacuation," a senior officer said.
The infantrymen, who as hesder yeshiva students served in a platoon made up of strictly religious soldiers, received the backing of members of the Council of Yesha Rabbis, a group of settlement rabbis. The rabbis advised the soldiers to find a way of being relieved from the objectionable mission, preferably in a nonconfrontational way, but with resolve.
Following the mass refusal, senior defense officials called to stop allowing hesder students to serve in separate units and to integrate the Orthodox soldiers - who serve 16 months in the army - into regular IDF units.
The soldiers were told by the rabbis not to cooperate even though the planned operation did not include the actual evacuation, but rather providing security backup to approximately 1,000 border policemen and law enforcement agents who have been enlisted to evacuate the two families from the Hebron market.
The rebel soldiers came from several hesder yeshivot, including the one at Itamar, southeast of Nablus, which is headed by Chief Rabbi of the IDF Avichai Ronsky, and the Or Etzion Hesder Yeshiva in Mercaz Shapira headed by Rabbi Haim Druckman. Both Druckman and Ronsky oppose insubordination.
Parents of the soldiers made their way to the Jordan Valley army base where their children were stationed to encourage them to refuse orders. One parent tried to block the bus that transported the soldiers to the Hebron area.
Moshe Rosenfeld, the father of one of the soldiers, told Army Radio that he forbade his son to carry out the orders. "My son was trained to fight enemies, to wait in ambushes, to sharpshoot. He was not trained to expel his brothers from their homes," Rosenfeld said.
"Use police for the expulsion. We saw how well they did it at Amona," he added, referring to the violent evacuation of the Amona outpost in Samaria on February 1, 2006, in which more than 200 people were injured.
Orthodox soldiers are among the most motivated personnel in the IDF, with disproportionately high numbers volunteering for elite combat units and reserve duty, according to experts.
But the same ideology that motivates these soldiers to excel as combat soldiers also makes certain IDF orders - such as the evacuation of Jews - morally repulsive. As a result, religious soldiers are torn between their loyalty to the Jewish nation's armed forces and their moral convictions.
For these soldiers, loyalty to the IDF is conditional, experts say. As long as the IDF is used as a means of furthering Jewish national interests as interpreted by rabbinic leaders, they will strictly obey orders and exhibit extraordinary courage. But the IDF loses its legitimacy when the government uses it to further goals deemed inimical to religious Zionism.
The Council of Yesha Rabbis is opposed to the evacuation of the Hebron families on religious grounds. A Jew has a God-given command to settle the Land of Israel, argue the rabbis, and this obligation takes precedence over military discipline.
Chief Rabbi of Hebron-Kiryat Arba Dov Lior, a senior member of the Council of Yesha Rabbis, released a statement two weeks ago calling on soldiers not to participate in the evacuation of pro-settlement activists from Homesh, a Jewish community in northern Samaria that was destroyed two years ago and which settlers are trying to repopulate. A spokesman for the council said that Lior's message was also directed to the Kfir Brigade soldiers.
"Military activities aimed at preventing Jewish settlement go against the teachings of our holy Torah," wrote Lior. "Every human being who cares about the Jewish people and the Land of Israel is commanded not to take part in these activities."
Rabbi Mordechai Rabinovich of Kochav Ya'acov north of Jerusalem and the secretary of the Yesha Council of Rabbis called the soldiers conscientious objectors.
"Our soldiers are driven by moral and ethical considerations," Rabinovich told The Jerusalem Post in an interview. "Protection of the Jewish people is a divine commandment for these soldiers. It is not just a job. But expelling Jews from property that legally belongs to them is immoral."
Heads of Hesder yeshivot and religious pre-military academies told the Post that a much larger segment of Orthodox soldiers would now be unwilling to carry out IDF orders to evacuate Jews from their homes than before the Gaza disengagement. These sources said the government's incompetent treatment of evacuated families had undermined many soldiers' trust.
"I can tell you that if the government were to try disengagement today there would be mass insubordination that would totally paralyze the IDF," said the head of a religious pre-military academy who preferred to remain anonymous.
According to Rabbi David Stav, a spokesman for the Hesder Yeshivot who is strongly opposed to insubordination, there has been a significant move to the Right among Orthodox Zionist youth. Like their haredi peers, a larger proportion of graduates from religious high schools have opted to delay their army service indefinitely.
In parallel, the number of religious soldiers joining frameworks perceived as religiously moderate, such as the pre-military academies, has fallen.
One of the most left-wing movements within religious Zionism - the religious kibbutzim - was forced to close one of two yeshivot due to a fall in enrollment.
The religious kibbutzim have historically prevented their high school graduates from enrolling in hesder yeshivot because they opposed the shortened army service. Instead, they set up the five-year "shiluv" program that combined three full years of army service with two years of yeshiva studies. But the yeshiva on Kibbutz Ein Tzurim, near Kiryat Malachi, the flagship shiluv yeshiva headed by Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun, has been closed.