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It would seem that the IDF's General Staff has lost its collective mind. On Independence Day last Wednesday, at the annual ceremony at the President's House honoring outstanding IDF soldiers, Sergeant Hananel Dayan, upon receiving his decoration, saluted IDF Chief of General Staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, but refused to shake his hand. When asked by President Moshe Katzav the meaning of his action, Dayan explained "My family was expelled from Gush Katif."
Members of the audience at the ceremony had no idea what was happening on the stage. The incident was over before it began. It would have been easy for Halutz to shrug the incident off. But he chose not to.
After Dayan descended the stage, he was accosted by Maj. Gen. Elazar Stern, head of the IDF's Manpower Division who berated him for his action. Stern demanded an apology. Dayan refused to provide one.
Stern later claimed that the IDF would have shrugged off the incident were it not for the presence of the media at the ceremony. Yet this claim is ridiculous. Had the IDF ignored the episode, the media would also have ignored it. In the "worst case" scenario, a reporter would have asked Halutz to comment on Dayan's action. Halutz would have said that it is understandable that those whose families were forced out of their homes in Gaza during the withdrawal last summer have hard feelings about what happened. Case closed.
But rather than ignore the minor incident, the IDF went bananas. Stern held a disciplinary hearing for Dayan on Thursday, even though Dayan had violated no IDF regulation. Dayan's brigade commander then expelled him from his unit and barred him from serving in any combat unit. Stern is now considering revoking Dayan's award for outstanding service.
The IDF's decision to react to Dayan's expression of his personal sentiment by crushing him with the full weight of the General Staff is indicative of a serious problem that has repercussions for both Israel's continued national viability and the IDF's continued capabilities as a fighting force.
Halutz, Stern and their subordinates accuse Dayan of having brought politics into the army by expressing his personal anger over what the IDF did to his family last August. It is true that Dayan's grief over the expulsion of his family is shared today almost exclusively by the Right, but that fact does not make his expression of his opinion either a crime or an act of politicization of the IDF. On the other hand, the generals' hysterical reaction to his refusal to shake Halutz's hand indicates that the politicization has already occurred.
Today, the national religious sector makes up some 15 percent of the overall population, yet its sons make up more than 30 percent of combat soldiers in the IDF. Soldiers from the national religious camp make up a plurality of cadets in combat officer training courses and a majority of soldiers in most commando units.
SOME 60 percent of NCOs in combat units graduated from national religious high schools and last year, 80 percent of company commanders in Golani infantry brigade were from the national religious camp. National religious officers are similarly overrepresented - by a ratio of between 2:1 to 4:1 in all combat units to the level of battalion command in the IDF. During the course of the Palestinian terror war since September 2000, 30 percent of soldiers killed in action were from the national religious camp.
The IDF's implementation of the expulsion orders last summer caused a sea change in the way that Israelis from the national religious camp perceive the IDF. The brutal police commanded evacuations of protesters at Amona last February - which left more than 300 demonstrators wounded - only widened the rift.
In an interview with Haaretz last week, Halutz claimed that there has been no decrease in levels of volunteerism of members of this sector since last summer. Yet members of the General Staff claim that his statement was misleading. The decreased motivation and ruined moral is evident today mainly in reenlistment rates. Company and battalion commanders are increasingly refusing to reenlist when their contracts end in anticipation of orders to carry out further withdrawals and expulsions.
RATHER THAN contend with this situation with the necessary self-interested sensitivity in light of the damage a breach of relations with the religious Zionist camp will cause to the IDF as a fighting force, Halutz has been going out of his way in recent months to publicly chastise, insult and alienate this public. Several months ago, referring to the violence at Amona and the protests last summer against the expulsions from Gaza, Halutz described the protesters as "poisoners of wells." On Holocaust Memorial Day he accused them of belittling the Holocaust for using the slogan "We won't forget and we won't forgive" regarding the expulsions last summer, although the same slogan has been used by the Left numerous times in the past. Halutz has held publicized meetings with members of the extremist Left wing group Machsom Watch but rudely refused to meet with Col. (res.) Moti Yogev, the former deputy commander of the Gaza Division who was wounded by police at Amona.
Halutz recently appointed Brig. Gen. Tal Russo as his personal emissary to the national religious sector to try to build bridges between religious leaders and youth and the IDF. IDF sources claim that Russo's appointment was the result of successive opinion polls that showed that the national religious camp despises Halutz. Russo has been going from community to community talking with rabbis and youths aged 16-18 to convince them to maintain their motivation to serve. Yet actions like those taken against Dayan directly undercut Russo's work.
UNFORTUNATELY, a recent report indicates that perhaps Russo's mission is a mere feint. According to Middle East Newsline, a news service that specializes in coverage of the IDF, Stern recently revised the IDF's guidelines for recruitment. In light of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's intention to expel tens of thousands of Israelis from their homes in Judea and Samaria, the IDF no longer believes that soldiers from the national religious camp are trustworthy. So, according to an officer in the Manpower Division quoted in the report, the IDF will now limit the recruitment of religious soldiers. The shortfall will be made up by juvenile delinquents who are currently barred from serving in combat units.
Over the past several months, a significant number of religious youths have received notices in the mail informing them that their IDF service had been cancelled just days before they were scheduled to show up at the induction centers. In most cases, the youths were scheduled to begin infantry basic training and were caught completely by surprise. When in some cases the youths pulled strings to reinstate their conscription, they were forced to undergo lengthy interrogations by Shin Bet officers who grilled them about their spiritual connections to the Land of Israel and their willingness to participate in expulsions.
Taken together, the IDF's treatment of Dayan; its new recruitment guidelines and Halutz's anti-religious rhetoric reveal a dangerous politicization of the IDF. It seems that today, with Hamas now in charge of the Palestinian Authority and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Amir Peretz now in charge of Israel, the IDF views Israelis rather than Arabs as its principal threat. Halutz and Stern, in criminalizing actions like Dayan's while minimizing the significance of the Hamas takeover of the Palestinian Authority are sending a clear signal of where they believe the IDF should be devoting its energies.
The IDF General Staff's decision to attack religious Zionists is perhaps the most disturbing development in Israel's recent past. Israel is in the middle of a war -- a war it has given its enemies every reason to believe they are winning. The result of Halutz and Stern's goading of the national religious camp is already being felt as its members make increasingly unrestrained statements regarding their unwillingness to fight for the country. If the current trend is not quickly reversed, not only will the IDF itself degrade its fighting capabilities by rejecting its best soldiers and recruits. It will be transformed into a force charged not with defending Israel against its enemies, but with defending the government against its political opponents.