For months, dark warnings had swirled that Israeli soldiers charged with removing Jews from their homes in Gaza Strip settlements slated for evacuation might refuse orders. Others said refusal, which threatens to erode the basic underpinnings of the army’s role in a democratic state, was nearly inconceivable.
And then came Avi Bieber, an immigrant from New Jersey who was captured last month on national television saying no to his commanders.
The dramatic footage of the red-faced Bieber, 19, refusing to evacuate settlers who had illegally taken over houses on the southern Gaza beachfront — “A Jew does not expel a Jew,” he declared — gave the entire country pause, wondering if his actions might presage more refusal ahead.
Founded to protect the Jewish state, the army has served throughout Israel’s history as a unifying force; men and women from across the political, religious and social spectrums were drafted and served together.
But now there is growing concern that an unprecedented wave of refusals to obey orders may be at hand when the army goes in to remove some 8,500 Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and West Bank during withdrawals slated to begin in mid-August.
Many religious Jews such as Bieber view the decision to withdraw from Gaza and parts of the northern West Bank as a sin, asserting that the land is the Jews’ biblical birthright.
Meanwhile, many secular Israelis view Gaza — with its population of almost 2 million Palestinians — as too costly to hold on to.
Political and religious divisions are growing starker within the military, as religious soldiers make up ever larger numbers of the elite combat units and officers corps.
The army’s new chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, meeting Monday with soldiers in the Gaza Strip, warned that refusing orders would carry severe consequences.
Refusal is “extremely dangerous for the State of Israel and its essence,” he said.
“Our commanders must understand that the challenge they are facing is no less difficult than fighting an enemy,” Halutz said. “This is not our enemy, but if any soldier starts picking his tasks, where will we be heading to?
“We can feel pain, we can think over our actions, we can weep — but you must carry out orders,” Halutz said. “There will be zero tolerance and no compromise” for refusal.
Until recently, conscientious objection in Israel has largely been associated with the left.
In 2002, a letter was published bearing the signatures of 50 army reserve officers — hundreds more later added their names — declaring that they would no longer serve in the West Bank or Gaza Strip and that such service does not help to defend Israel but only perpetuates “our control over the Palestinian people.”
Twenty-seven Air Force pilots said, in 2003, that they would refuse to take part in raids on Palestinian civilian population centers, after Israel’s assassinations of terrorist kingpins also killed innocent civilians.
Pundits wondered if the floodgates of conscientious objection were about to open — but in both cases, the specter of mass refusal turned out to be overblown.
As the Gaza withdrawal nears, it’s impossible to predict how many soldiers will refuse orders. What emerges may not be clear-cut refusal but rather a failure to report for duty, especially among reserve soldiers.
According to Yoav Livnat, spokesman for Homat Magen — an organization formed to encourage refusal to carry out evacuation orders — some 20,000 reservists have signed a document stating their intention to disobey such commands.
Livnat, the brother of Education Minister Limor Livnat, says he hopes that such a display of defiance will help derail the evacuation effort.
“We do not think that the existence of the refuseniks will stop the process in itself but will contribute to an overall weakening of the army that will make it difficult for the army to carry out its orders,” he said.
Livnat also said there will be something of a “gray” area of refusal — soldiers who do not declare outright that they’re refusing orders but who plan to do so in their own way. For example, he said, soldiers at checkpoints who have been instructed not to let people into the Gaza Strip once it has been declared a closed military zone might choose to do so anyway.
The army says it won’t take insubordination lightly. Corp. Bieber, for example, was sentenced to 56 days in a military prison.
In the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, where Bieber’s family lives, his actions were celebrated. In fact, he has become something of a hero of the anti-withdrawal movement.
The Biebers immigrated to Israel from Passaic, N.J., nine years ago. Bieber’s mother, Michelle, said in a phone interview with JTA that she is proud of her eldest son.
“‘It was a hard decision for him. He loves the army,” Michelle Bieber said. “He’s been in Gaza for about eight months, guarding the settlers and making sure they’re safe, so kicking them out was not something he was able to do.”
Michelle Bieber said she realizes that refusing orders is not for everyone.
“I would not tell people to do the same thing. I would tell them to follow their conscience,” she said.
Yair Orbach heads Yom Pekudah, an organization made up of religious Zionist men who serve in the army and are opposed to refusal. Orbach and other members of the organization are not in favor of the withdrawal plan, but they are traveling the country warning of the dangers of refusing orders.
Orbach says anti-withdrawal activists are potentially inflating the number of soldiers who may refuse orders. From what he hears on the ground, he says, most soldiers will heed army instructions.
“We say that if we refuse orders, we’re destroying our society,” Orbach said. “If someone refuses this order, another day there will be a different order that they refuse, and there will be no end to the cycle.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.