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Israel's pro-settlement soldiers worry leaders

The evacuation of the outpost of Shvut Ami, next to the West Bank settlement of Kdumim - April 2008
Evacuation of settlements and outpost pits Israeli soldiers against settlers

In Israel, most men and women do military service. As a result, the public's attitude towards their military is rather familial and criticism is mostly expressed in private. But, suddenly, an increasing number of soldiers are openly protesting against their involvement in the evacuation of Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank, reports the BBC's Katya Adler.

The first demonstration to really catch Israelis' attention was last month at the swearing-in ceremony for hundreds of new soldiers in Jerusalem. The evening event was staged at the Western Wall, in religious and political terms, one of Israel's most significant sites.

It was there that a group of soldiers chose to wave a banner proclaiming that their battalion would not evacuate Jewish settlements.

Still fresh in Israeli minds is the pull-out from Gaza four years ago. More than 7,000 Jewish settlers were removed from their homes, some forcibly, by Israeli soldiers and border police. It was seen as a national trauma.

The Israeli army has one big purpose - to protect Israeli citizens. No democratic army in the world uses its army against its own people
Yoel Melamed
Father of dissenting soldier

Now, around half a million Jewish settlers live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Their homes are illegal under international law, which views the territory as occupied land.

Israel disputes this but its own law doesn't recognise some settlements, often referred to as outposts. Soldiers are called on to help dismantle them.

New refuseniks

Yoel Melamed's son is in a military detention centre for refusing to take part in the evacuation of a small Jewish settlement last week. He has also been demoted and removed from combat duty.

Mr Melamed told me how proud he was of his son, Ahiya, who grew up in a Jewish settlement.

"I agree with my son's actions. I am happy to have a son like that. The Israeli army has one big purpose - to protect Israeli citizens. No democratic army in the world uses its army against its own people."

Israel's press has nicknamed the dissenting soldiers refuseniks, the same term used for the few Israeli soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank or Gaza because they oppose Israel's military occupation.

The new refuseniks say they were trained to fight "terror", not throw fellow Jews out of their homes.

Settlers at destroyed outpost
Some West Bank settlements are illegal even under Israeli law

They are being encouraged, publicly, by a number of Israeli rabbis. They, along with most religious Jews, believe that the West Bank is part of the Holy Land given to the Jewish people by God. They insist Jews have every right to live there.

A growing number of religious Jewish soldiers are choosing to serve in Israel's combat units.

Many come straight from centres for Jewish teaching, known as yeshivas. There are battalions, serving in the West Bank, that are made up mainly of yeshiva students.

God or country?

The Israeli press is full of editorials arguing that the soldiers will have to choose between God and country when it comes to receiving orders that clash with their religious beliefs.

It's a huge problem for Israel's leaders. Evacuating a large number of West Bank settlements will be key to any eventual peace deal with the Palestinians.

Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has strongly condemned the dissenters.

He said the security and existence of Israel depended on its army and that "refusing" soldiers could bring about the destruction of the country.

But many soldiers view Jewish settlements as a political, not an existential issue for Israel. They don't want to be involved.

Israelis fear the issue could tear apart their army from the inside - a military that the outside world regards as the most powerful in the Middle East.



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