stern, elazar, 224.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The main factor in Israel's military victory in the 1948 War of Independence - in which it was outnumbered and outgunned by surrounding Arab armies and a Palestinian guerrilla force - was the Palmah. These brigades were the fledgling Jewish state's standing army which numbered in the few thousands. They also bore the brunt of the casualties in the first months of heavy fighting.
The Palmah units were established in 1941 when the British Mandatory still governed the country. They were based in kibbutzim on an economic arrangement of doing farm work half the time and training militarily during the other half.
That arrangement was also to express itself in most Palmah commanders owing and openly expressing political loyalty to the left wing parties - Hashomer Hatza'ir and Ahdut Ha'avoda - with which most kibbutzim were affiliated, and in opposition to David Ben-Gurion's Mapai. The best-known war heroes of the first months of the war, Yigal Allon, Palmah founder Yitzhak Sadeh, Moshe Carmel and even Yitzhak Rabin were all affiliated with the Palmah and its controlling parties.
In the middle of the war, well before Israel turned the tide against the superior invading Arab forces, the ever-paranoid Ben-Gurion went to extremes to disband the Palmah's coordinating high command, for fear that its left-wing parties would seize command over a large part of the newly established Israel Defense Forces, and in a propitious moment stage a coup and wrest political control of the country itself.
Interestingly the decision to disband the Palmah was taken not in the precursor of the Knesset - where Ben-Gurion did not command a majority - but in the Central Committee of the Histadrut, which was dominated by his Mapai.
Several months earlier defense minister Ben-Gurion had even ordered the army to shell the Irgun Zvai Leumi's gun-running ship the Altalena, to prevent a possible right-wing takeover of the army. Several IZL fighters were killed in that bombardment, in full view of the population of Tel Aviv and Netanya. The incident is still a sore point between surviving Likud and Mapai old-timers.
SO MUCH for history. But a significant number of today's IDF commanders and defense politicians view the behavior of national religious middle- and upper-echelon commanders against this historical backdrop. Religiously observant commanders from that segment of the population did not figure prominently in Israel's early decades and wars. But after the 1973 Yom Kippur War which was traumatic for the kibbutzim and other left-wing bodies who had previously supplied most of the IDF's commanders and fighters, Orthodox officers and even entire units of religious soldiers began to fill that role.
The recent rumblings in the army over the behavior of many rabbis in the IDF and other religious political figures in connection with the divisive issue of the disengagement from Gaza and the forced transfer of settlers by the army can only be understood on the broader background of who will control Israel's armed forces.
Rabbis who head the hesder yeshivot and the pre-conscription preparatory high schools who in recent decades have supplied the IDF with a significant proportion of its middle-level commanders and high-quality fighters have fallen under suspicion for failing to come out openly in support of the IDF high command and its civilian overlords. Some in fact came out with an opposite message to observant soldiers to disobey orders to vacate the settlements.
The actual vacating of the settlements has not ended those suspicions and the dispute. In recent weeks the religious OC Manpower, Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern, was physically attacked and prevented from praying at the Western Wall during the Succot holiday by Orthodox supporters of the settlers. A week ago the deputy commander of the Shechem Brigade, Lt.-Col. Benny Shick was similarly attacked and stoned by religious settlers who opposed the evacuation of recently established dummy outposts.
All of this activity came in for blunt attacks from Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz in a meeting with settlement rabbis. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz also declared this week that settlers who had been involved in such attacks on IDF personnel would not be drafted into the army. He also called on the government to stiffen the punishment for such attacks.
Such extreme verbal reactions by IDF heads who are fully aware of the political support the settlers enjoyed are nearly unprecedented. It remains to be seen whether this attitude toward settler extremists will be backed up by actions in a politically volatile year. The roles played by some of the settlement rabbis, hesder yeshiva and preparatory school principals in the events of recent months are often compared to the Soviet-style, political commander politruk in the Palmah.
These issues - the closing down of some or all hesder yeshivot and the tightening of the military service terms of their students - are certain to come to the fore in the coming few months. It is still far from certain how much of a lead Prime Minister Sharon and Defense Minister Mofaz will give the IDF's military commanders in these confrontations.