Analysis: A fateful test for the IDF

"There's only one thing worse than expelling Jews from their homes... and that is ruining the army."

hebron 298.88 (photo credit: ahmad gharabli [file])
hebron 298.88
(photo credit: ahmad gharabli [file])
Ahead of disengagement from the Gaza Strip two years ago, a right-wing organization called Defensive Shield claimed to have collected 13,000 signatures of soldiers, officers and reservists who would refuse orders to evacuate the Gush Katif settlement bloc. But their numbers weren't even close - just over 60 soldiers refused orders. The IDF succeeded in quelling the potential mass revolt by threatening soldiers with severe punishment and by ensuring that platoons of hesder yeshiva students - in which there was a high potential for refusal - did not participate in the withdrawal. Monday's decision by 12 soldiers to refuse orders to participate in the planned Hebron evacuation was an indication that the threat has not disappeared and has even grown since the Gaza pullout. The 12 - who are from hesder yeshivot, including the one in Itamar headed by IDF Chief Rabbi Brig.-Gen. Avichai Ronsky - proved that they answer to a different authority: their rabbis, and not their officers. That two squad commanders were among the insubordinate soldiers was all the more distressing for the IDF; they were on track to becoming officers and possibly even embarking on a military career. Since disengagement, the religious Zionist movement is no longer the same. Enrollment in religious pre-military academies - for many years the source of a growingly religious officers corps - has stagnated, while the number of youth asking for religious-based exemptions has significantly grown. According to some estimates, out of the 6,000 religious youth who annually graduate high school, almost 1,000 are passing on military service like the ultra-Orthodox. "There is a growing shift to the Right of the political and religious map," said a prominent religious Zionist rabbi. "More so-called religious Zionist youth are skipping military service or are joining hesder yeshivot to serve less time." Dr. Yehuda Ben-Meir, a former deputy minister and a research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies, said he did not believe the IDF was facing a wave of insubordination, but that there was room to be concerned that the phenomenon could one day grow. "The way to prevent that from happening is for the IDF to emphasize that it will not tolerate disobedience and that soldiers who refuse orders will be punished severely and sit in jail for a long time," Ben-Meir said. Maj.-Gen. (res.) Ya'acov Amidror, well-known as a right-winger, said he strongly opposed the Hebron evacuation. But, he said, soldiers had no choice but to carry out orders. "There is only one thing that is worse than the decision to expel Jews from their homes in Hebron... and that is to ruin the army," he said. "Disobeying an order is a sure way to ruin the army." These numbers are what led OC Human Resources Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern last year to begin integrating hesder soldiers into regular units. Until then the yeshiva students had served in segregated platoons. But with insubordination among religious youth a growing phenomenon, Stern wanted to ensure that commanders wouldn't find themselves with entire units revolting, but only - in the worst case - a few soldiers. While Monday's acts of insubordination were not directly connected to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Jericho, it was difficult to ignore the coincidental timing. Olmert's and Abbas's meetings are expected one day to lead to final-status negotiations and to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank. If that happens, the evacuation of the two families from the Hebron market set for Tuesday will be nothing compared to the consequential evacuation of dozens of settlements and thousands of families. This, when and if it happens, will be the IDF's real test.