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Friday, 1 February, 2002, 16:34 GMT
Split widens over Israeli reservists
Israeli tank on the West Bank
Israel has made incursions into the West Bank and Gaza
A decision by more than 100 Israeli reserve officers to refuse to serve in the Palestinian territories has sparked a furious row inside the military, and a widening public debate.

In the biggest challenge to the army's authority since the Palestinian uprising began 16 months ago, the reservists have said they are not willing to fight for the purpose of "dominating, expelling, starving and humiliating an entire people".

We reserve combat soldiers and officers say the decision is in our hands - we are already more than 100

Statement by Israeli reserve officers
This in turn has prompted a strong counter campaign, and a suggestion by the army's chief of staff that there are political motives behind the protest, which would amount to incitement to rebellion.

A former head of Israel's internal security service, Ami Ayalon, has given his support to their protest, saying he is very concerned about the large number of unarmed Palestinian children shot by Israeli troops.

In an interview with Israeli television, he said that, as far as he was concerned, not enough soldiers were refusing to obey what he called blatantly illegal orders.

But he added that refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza was not the answer.

Military service is compulsory in Israel, and men are required to serve in the reserves for over a month each year until well into middle age unless they have a special exemption.

Petition growing

Military commanders have suspended two of the rebellious officers who started a petition and are interviewing others who signed it.

An Israeli army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver Rafinovich, told the BBC that the protest was not supported by the majority of serving soldiers.

He said the military authorities would not speak to the officers as a group, but would see them individually and discuss their views.
Israeli checkpoint
Checkpoints are part of everyday life for Palestinians
Initially, 52 reserve officers signed the petition.

But the list is now growing and the petition with 50 new signatures was published in an Israeli newspaper on Friday.

"We reserve combat soldiers and officers say the decision is in our hands - we are already more than 100," their statement said.

In response, a counter campaign has begun with reservists condemning the protesters and publishing their own petition in the same newspaper.

Disciplinary action

Another counter petition has appeared on the internet and an organiser, Nir Aboodraham, said up to 5,000 people had signed it.

The BBC's Caroline Hawley, in Jerusalem, says it is not only the military that is worried - the reservists' rebellion is now taking on growing political significance.

A poll conducted for Israel radio said 31% of Israelis supported the protesting officers.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
Mr Sharon says democracy is being threatened
The Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, has said he is not against criticism, but that if soldiers did not carry out the decisions of an elected government, it would be the beginning of the end of democracy.

The army's Chief of Staff, Shaul Mofaz, has said he is taking the issue very seriously and will take disciplinary action against any officer who refuses to serve.

But a spokesman for the protesters said General Mofaz's suggestion that they might face charges of incitement to rebellion was an attempt to silence them.

Israeli troops and tanks have staged frequent incursions into the West Bank and Gaza since the current uprising, or intifada, began in September 2000.

It says that, because the Palestinian Authority has failed to rein in groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, Israel must defend itself against suicide bombings and other attacks on its citizens.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been under virtual house arrest at his headquarters in the West Bank town of Ramallah as Israel continues to hold him responsible for much of the violence.

The Palestinian Authority has denied being behind attacks on Israelis.

The BBC's Orla Guerin
"It is a painful blow to unity"
Israeli army spokesman, Lt Col Oliver Rafinovich
"This will not affect the strength of the country"
Peretz Kidron, journalist in Jerusalem
"It has broken the conspiracy of silence"
See also:

01 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israel's culture of reservists
01 Feb 02 | Middle East
Israel suspends rebel reservists
31 Jan 02 | Middle East
Symbolic funeral for female bomber
31 Jan 02 | Middle East
Sharon regrets sparing Arafat
31 Jan 02 | Middle East
Militants shot dead in Gaza
01 Feb 02 | Middle East
Sharon 'sees top Palestinians'
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