The prospect of hundreds of soldiers refusing to obey orders to evacuate military bases in the West Bank poses a serious problem for Israel.
Not only could such a development affect redeployment plans by the Israel Defense Force, it could also bring to the fore potential conflicts between the demands of the state and the dictates of religion.
The possibility of such refusals, which also could raise serious questions about the IDF’s integrity and operational capabilities, has arisen in the wake of recent questions by yeshiva students to their rabbis.
Dozens of yeshiva students serving in the West Bank recently asked their rabbis whether to disobey orders to evacuate their military bases in case of an IDF redeployment there.
High-ranking IDF officers have said any refusal to obey orders would be met with regular IDF disciplinary measures — namely a court-martial followed by a jail sentence.
The questions surfaced as Israeli and Palestinian officials appeared to move closer toward concluding an agreement for implementing the next phase of Palestinian self-rule.
The two sides agreed Sunday to move their negotiations to Italy this week to discuss implementation of the next phase, which would include a partial but significant redeployment of Israeli troops in the West Bank during the fall, and the holding of Palestinian elections throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip, probably in early November.
Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat, meeting on July 4, apparently agreed in principle on the specifics for an Israeli redeployment and the division of security responsibilities in the West Bank.
After missing a July 1 target date for the second-phase agreement, the two sides have set July 25 as a new date for concluding negotiations.
These signs of progress on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating front have prompted not only questions from yeshiva students, but also preparations among groups representing West Bank settlers for strategies in case of an Israeli army redeployment in the West Bank.
Two groups of rabbis — the Yesha Rabbis’ Committee, which is comprised of rabbis who reside and officiate in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and the Union of Rabbis for Eretz Israel, which is headed by former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira — are scheduled to meet this week to discuss their position on the evacuation of military bases in the West Bank.
A similar meeting held last week failed to produce any conclusive results.
In a sign of the sensitivity of the discussions, the rabbis were instructed by Shapira, who adamantly opposes any withdrawal from the territories on religious grounds, not to speak to the media on this issue.
Although no rabbinic ruling has yet been issued, the topic is already haunting the IDF, as well as Israeli society at large.
Last week, the Headquarters for the Struggle to Abolish the Autonomy Plan, a militant settlers organization, issued a set of guidelines on how to resist any Israeli evacuation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The code, which provide guidelines in case of forced evacuation from the territories by the IDF, was signed by 150 public figures, academics, legal experts and retired military officers, all identified with the settlers movement.
The code dealt primarily with the legal status of evacuation orders, but did not call upon IDF soldiers to disobey those orders. Instead, the code advised soldiers to try and leave their post in case such orders are issued.
In contrast, the Yesha Rabbis’ Committee and the Union of Rabbis for Eretz Israel focusing on whether potential IDF evacuation orders would conflict with halachah, or Jewish law.
Two years ago, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who is now deceased, issued a halachic ruling forbidding Jews to evacuate any settlement in the biblical and land of Israel, which includes Judea, Samaria and Gaza.
Goren, who served as the IDF’s chief rabbi during the 1967 Six-Day War and later as Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi, stated in his ruling that “a command to evacuate settlements has no obligatory stature, and soldiers ought to disobey such an order.”
“A soldier who receives an order that contradicts the laws of the Torah must follow the halachah of the Torah and not the secular order,” the ruling said.
Goren issued the ruling in response to questions by rabbis from the territories. The rabbis immediately adopted his ruling and then solicited endorsements from more than 1,000 additional rabbis from Israel and abroad.
Among those who subsequently endorsed the ruling were Shapira; the leaders of the Union of Rabbis for Eretz Israel; Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neriah, the founder and leader of the Bnei Akiva chain of yeshiva high schools; Rabbi Shaul Israeli; the head of the Merkaz HaRav Yeshiva who died recently; and the late American Rabbi Yossef Dov Soloveitchik.
The question recently raised by the hesder soldiers — soldiers who combine yeshiva studies with military service — as well as by Orthodoxy soldiers who reside in the territories, is whether Goren’s ruling also covers the evacuation of military bases.
The rabbis are well aware of the far-reaching ramifications such rulings may have, and they hold different opinions.
Although most of them oppose a peace accord with the Palestinians that entails the evacuation of any land in the territories, some question the wisdom of issuing halachic rulings that may contradict military orders, thus putting their students in the position of having to choose between the two.
Other rabbis wonder whether there should be a distinction between the evacuation of military bases that will then be handed over to the Palestinian Authority and those that will be taken over by different IDF units.
Still other rabbis, particularly those from more militant settlements such as Hebron, wish to expand the ruling to make it a sweeping one that would effectively prevent any IDF redeployment in the West Bank and cause a breakdown in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Maj. Gen. Ilan Biran, commander of the Israeli army’s central command, which includes the West Bank, said this week that any soldier who disobeys orders “will end up in prison.”
The IDF follows the instructions of the democratically elected political leadership, he said, adding, “Every soldier, commander and officer must follow military orders.”
More than a month ago, Biran met with Shapira to discuss the issue. During their discussions, Shapira declined to tell the general his position on the question of evacuating military bases.
Knesset member Rafael Eitan, a former IDF chief of staff and now the leader of the right-wing Tsomet Party, strongly opposes on security grounds any Israeli evacuation in the West Bank and the establishment of Palestinian self-rule there.
But Eitan considers the refusal to obey military orders a totally acceptable option.
“Soldiers receive orders and execute them,” he told Army Radio. “It is the political leadership that is issuing clearly unlawful orders, and should therefore stand trial for it.”
“The army fulfills orders regardless of who issued them, and why,” he said.
Eitan also expressed his disapproval of the rabbis’ involvement in what he clearly views as a military matter. “I am not interested in what the rabbis say,” he said. “They are not military commanders, and they don’t issue orders to the army. Soldiers do what the army tells them to do.”