Pride in IDF turns to scorn for some settlers

Yair wants to join the IDF. But it's not clear the IDF will want him.

settlers police clash 88 (photo credit: )
settlers police clash 88
(photo credit: )
When Yair Ben-David, 19, completes his religious studies in this remote Samaria settlement boasting an unobstructed view of Nablus, he wants to join the IDF. But it's not clear the IDF will want him. In August, Ben-David, tall and wiry with piercing green eyes, led a group of anti-disengagement activists who barricaded themselves atop the Kfar Darom synagogue when troops began evacuating the settlement. Following a long standoff, police special forces stormed the synagogue and arrested Ben-David and about 100 others. On Tuesday, the IDF notified some 15 teens arrested for disengagement-related offenses that their November conscription would be suspended indefinitely, angering mainstream settlers. The army responded to a Jerusalem Post query by saying it would suspend the conscription of anyone involved in a criminal act. Once the majority of West Bank settlers or those affiliated with the national religious camp took pride in serving in the IDF's combat units. But settler-army relations have deteriorated since disengagement, and that pride has soured for many. Now in response to the IDF's suspension, an unnamed group issued a leaflet in West Bank settlements calling on national religious youth to evade conscription. Another organization, called Lev Hayehudi, which ran a hot line urging soldiers to refuse orders during disengagement, claims to have collected the signatures of more than 1,000 12th graders who now condition their conscription on the tenet that "loyalty to the Torah supersedes that to the state." "The army has to understand that it cannot decide who is conscripted," Lev Hayehudi spokesman Yehuda Livman said. "We will now decide who is conscripted and how." The petition will be submitted to Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz once the group gathers more signatures, he said. The IDF said that following such advice would result in the youths' arrest. During disengagement, the army encountered only a few cases of total refusal. The incidents of "gray refusal," in which soldiers and reservists told their officers, "I cannot do this," rather than "I refuse to do this," were in the hundreds. Nearly 500 were arrested in the buildup to disengagement, and lawyers Amikam Hadar and Hedva Shapira estimated that a similar number were arrested during the pullout. The IDF had no specific data on soldiers' religious convictions, one army spokesman noted, adding: "We can't count every kippa, or who observes when." Nevertheless, approximately 30 percent of the IDF's officer corps consider themselves observant, according to unofficial sources. Yigal Amitay, a resident of the radical West Bank settlement of Yitzhar and a de facto spokesman for the settlers' right flank, put it bluntly: "The chief of General Staff has said to the refusers that 'there is only one authority,' meaning, the IDF. For religious Jews that is anathema. The only authority is God." The four other demands in the Lev Hayehudi petition are the strict observance of kashrut and Shabbat. The new soldiers will refuse orders unrelated to securing the state: i.e., "no orders expelling Jews." They also demand that women be excluded from combat units. The last of the demands calls for disobeying an order in which a "Jewish life is jeopardized." Amitay called the rejection of the army "a natural phenomenon after disengagement." Rabbinical luminaries such as Mordechai Eliahu and Avraham Shapira ordered their adherents to disobey army orders. The fallout, said Amitay, is that even after the disengagement, many youth reject the army. "Now [the rabbis] ask: How can this happen. Well they knew this would happen, and they wanted the army to be torn to bits by their decision." That forecast is rash, said Prof. Stewart Cohen, an expert in the military at Bar-Ilan University, who predicted that settler-IDF antipathy "might however push people to create a professional army." But like an increasing number of religious youth, and especially those who live in the settlements, Ben-David has to put his foot down. His primary orders are from God, and the army comes second. Ben-David, who tucks his side curls behind his ears, believes that by serving in the army, young men like him can gain influence for his sector of society. The fewer chances for advancing the goals of the Torah and the land, the less motivation young soldiers will have. Standing with a few friends at the Birkat Hatorah Yeshiva in Shavei Shomron, Ben-David swapped stories of friends embarrassed by wearing the uniform. The trauma of disengagement has hit home among these young men. The shells of prefabricated homes trucked in from Homesh - which once stood on a ridge a few kilometers north - after its evacuation now rot across from the yeshiva. Once lauded, off-duty troops make sure to don civilian clothes before going to religious friends' weddings. "They fear embarrassment or scorn," said Ben-David. Others duck into bus station public toilets to change, lest they be seen by their peers. "No one wants to be seen as a member of a group that expels Jews," noted Elihaim, 22, who served 18 months in the IDF. Grudges against the soldiers hold fast. One paratrooper based in Shavei Shomron lamented that the municipal buses that shuttle between settlements no longer open their doors to soldiers. "And it is impossible for us to hitchhike, because no one stops so we have to wait hours for Egged," he said. For his part, Ben-David still thinks he might serve. After all, "somebody's got to bring some religion to the army."