Israel disbands ultra-orthodox army units

The Israeli military is to disband some religious army units amid growing resistance among soldiers to removing Jewish settlers from the Gaza strip later this year.

The army denies that the move was prompted by concern over defiance among religious and right-wing troops of the first forcible removal of settlers from the Palestinian territories. But Israeli MPs and rabbis have accused the military of planning to disperse soldiers likely to dissent as the army grapples with a growing split over Ariel Sharon’s plan to move all 8 000 settlers out of Gaza.

In recent weeks, the military has dismissed dozens of reserve officers who publicly called on soldiers to rebel.

But Sharon’s hope of an end to Palestinian attacks before the withdrawal were bolstered on Wednesday as senior officials from both sides met in Jerusalem to plan the first summit between the Israeli prime minister and the new Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. The meeting is expected to take place in about two weeks.

Hours earlier, Israel told the Palestinians it would stop the assassinations of Hamas and Islamic Jihad as long as an informal truce holds, a key condition of the armed Islamist groups for a total end to their attacks on Israeli targets.

The United States Middle East envoy, William Burns, was expected to arrive in Jerusalem on Wednesday night for meetings with Palestinian leaders who are seeking US help in winning guarantees that Israel will respect a ceasefire.

The decision to disband the “religious Zionist” units, which combine Torah study with military service, has outraged many on the religious right.
The army does not intend to disband another ultra-orthodox unit, the Nahal Haredi brigade. About 3 000 ultra-orthodox soldiers serve full-time in religious units.

Effi Eitam, a former member of Sharon’s Cabinet, is demanding parliamentary hearings on the move. “This is not operational but political, and threatens to harm seriously the delicate fabric of religious Zionism and its integration in the army,” he said.

Although the army is not concerned about disobedience over the withdrawal, which it describes as a “fringe phenomenon”, dissent is growing.

Earlier this month, the military dismissed 34 reserve officers living in West Bank settlements, including four battalion commanders, after they published a petition claiming that the planned dismantlement of the Gaza settlements is unlawful.

“We think that any order to carry out disengagement is a patently illegal order,” the officers told their commander in the letter.

The attorney general is investigating two Jewish settlers—one of them the brother of the education minister—who have gathered thousands of signatures from soldiers pledging to disobey the orders.

A Jewish settler and army staff sergeant, Yossi Filant, created a stir by calling on other soldiers to disobey orders to remove an illegal Jewish outpost in the West Bank. He is serving 28 days in the stockade.

The army chief of staff has condemned the rabbinical council in the occupied territories for backing the disobedience campaign.

The government fears that some soldiers will view rabbinical rulings as higher than national law.

Last year, a former chief rabbi, Avraham Shapira, called on soldiers and the police to refuse to remove the settlers, comparing the policy to “desecrating the Sabbath and eating un-kosher food”.

Soldiers in two brigades last week told the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv that they would disobey their orders.

“On the day of the evacuation we will not only refuse to evacuate, but we will also surrender our weapons to our platoon commander and cross over to the other side, with the settlers, in order to help them fight,” said one soldier.

Resistance to disengagement is also growing within Sharon’s Likud party.

One party official, Moshe Feiglin, is heading a “Jewish leadership” group that is circulating a booklet calling for mass civil resistance to the pullout.

“In the face of the legal establishment’s backing down on its principles, which has presented the Knesset with a new version of the Nuremberg laws, the only option is a civilian campaign of disobedience,” the booklet says.

Sharon responded defiantly in a speech to the Israeli Parliament this week.

“A democratic regime is truly such when the minority knows that it must accept and respect the decisions of the majority, even when they do not like them,” he said. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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