By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voiced concern on Tuesday over a mutiny by pro-settler soldiers that raised fears of more rebellion in the ranks in any future land-for-peace moves with the Palestinians.
“Our security and existence depend on the Israel Defense Forces,” Netanyahu told reporters. “If you promote disobedience, you will bring about the downfall of the state. There is no place for disobedience.”
In an incident on Monday played down by the military as an aberration and described by some political commentators as a crossing of a red line, a handful of soldiers protested against the partial dismantling of a settler-outpost in the West Bank.
Their action prompted 15 right-wing legislators in the 120-member parliament to propose a bill that would bar the military from forcing troops to remove Jews from settlements in the occupied territory.
Two of the soldiers disobeyed orders and refused to secure the settlement site, which had been built without government permission and where police razed two buildings. They were sentenced respectively to 20 days and 14 days in jail.
Two other soldiers, who held up a sign at an army base in the West Bank saying their battalion would never evacuate settlements, also faced a disciplinary hearing at which each received a month-long prison term.
“The military …must understand there are some soldiers who cannot implement these orders. It is like asking a man to strike his brother,” said Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the Elon Moreh seminary in the West Bank where some of the troops had studied.
“Stop the anarchy,” countered a headline in Israel’s biggest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, above commentary urging the army to crack down hard on soldiers who disobey orders.
The military’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, told reporters he would do just that.
But Brigadier-General Avi Bnayahu, the military’s chief spokesman, played down the significance of the protests.
“This is not a political tidal wave washing through the military and the matter has not spiraled out of control,” Bnayahu said.
Ideological divides run deep in Israel, especially over the future of some 500,000 Jews who live among 2.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas captured in a 1967 war.
But the military, to which Jewish men and women are conscripted at the age of 18, has long been seen as off-limits to political debate.
Soldiers who participated in the removal of settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 were hand-picked and specially trained for the task. Troops uncomfortable with the mission were quietly excused by their commanders.
Politically-charged demolitions at some of the dozens of outposts erected by Jews in the West Bank without formal permission are usually carried out by police rather than soldiers, who are assigned perimeter security duty.
The latest mutiny followed a protest last month by conscripts, who disrupted their swearing-in ceremony by calling for continued Jewish settlement in the West Bank, part of the territory where Palestinians hope to create a state.
After that incident, two soldiers were sentenced to 20 days in jail and removed from their unit.
“No one should be surprised if the signs of protest within the military against the evacuation of structures and settlements only grow,” wrote Alex Fishman, military affairs correspondent for Israel’s biggest daily, Yedioth Ahronoth.
“After all, these soldiers were sentenced to only a few days of detention, as if they committed a traffic offence.”