Furor Over Israeli Soldiers' Support For Settlements

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has denounced the actions of some Israeli soldiers who support Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Some Israelis say the soldiers are heros. Palestinians demand Israel freeze all settlement activity as a condition for restarting peace talks. The international community views the settlements as illegal.

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Israel is reacting to a different group of dissidents: soldiers who support Jewish settlements in the West Bank and who have begun to act on those beliefs. That has touched off a heated debate about personal politics versus military duty. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has denounced the actions of the soldiers. Others in Israel say they're heroes.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Jerusalem.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Last week, six soldiers who served in an infantry unit in the West Bank refused to take part in the demolition of illegal structures in the Jewish settlement outpost of Negohot. Their actions followed an incident last month when a group of conscripts at their swearing-in ceremony raised a banner in support of settlement activity in the West Bank. Netanyahu, whose coalition includes pro-settler parties, had this to say about the protests.

Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU (Israel): (Through translator) If you want to destroy IDF, then support disobeying orders. If you support this refusal, it will bring about the collapse of the state.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The army immediately disciplined the soldiers involved in both incidents. In a statement to NPR, the IDF said political demonstrations within the military framework are strongly frowned upon. Such acts impair the strength and unity of combat units. In Israel, army service is compulsory, and because conscripts come from communities with widely different views, military commanders have long sought to keep politics out of the army. But the recent protests point to the increasing fault lines within Israel society, stoking passions on both sides.

Mr. ASHLAN VELAN(ph) (Politician): What they are doing, in my opinion, is more dangerous than any kind of terrorist activity based on (unintelligible).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ashlan Velan is a left-wing Israeli politician. The settlements are at the heart of the current impasse in Middle East peace efforts. The Palestinians are demanding that Israel freeze all settlement activity as a condition for restarting peace talks. The international community views the settlements as illegal. Velan says the issue of settlements divides Israelis, as well, and pro-settler groups, he says, are trying to use these protests by soldiers to advance their aim of keeping settlements in the West Bank.

Mr. VELAN: They're trying to change the rules. In my opinion, it's out of any context of any kind of what I know, democracy, what is all about. And I hope that the Israeli society will be strong enough not to support them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But those who do support the disobedient soldiers say what's happened is an important message to the government.

Dr. YUAL MALMED(ph): Well, I'm very proud of him. He knows and thinks right.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dr. Yual Malmed is the father of one of the soldiers who refused orders to evacuate the settlement outpost. He lives in the massive Israeli settlement of Ma'ale Adumim. Malmed says it's unfair to ask soldiers who live in settlements to evacuate people who may be their friends and family.

Dr. MALMED: You need to defend Israel from its enemies. I don't think there's any democracy that uses its army against its civilians, and there's a big problem here. Take the army out of it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There are fears that these protests may only be the start of a wider movement. Some of the soldiers involved studied at Hesder yeshivas, which combined religious studies with military service. Those graduates are increasingly playing a more prominent role in the military. According to a recent report, 80 percent of yeshiva students joined elite combat units. The Israeli government is now threatening to end their relationship with several of those yeshivas whose rabbis supported the recent protests.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

Rabbi Schmul Kauffman(ph) teaches young boys at a yeshiva near Jerusalem. He says he tells his students that it is there religious duty to protect Israel, and religious soldiers have an important role to play.

Rabbi SCHMUL KAUFFMAN (Teacher at Yeshiva School): (Through translator) I tell my students that going to the army is a commitment from the Torah, because when one fights for the Jewish people, it is of high religious value. It glorifies the name of the Lord.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Rabbi Kauffman says he doesn't advocate disobeying orders. Still, he says, soldiers shouldn't be asked to choose between their rabbi and their commander.

Rabbi KAUFFMAN: (Through translator) Politics has no place in the army, but religion is something else. It's a great instrument that can help the Jews be victorious in their wars.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: One of Rabbi Kauffman's students, 15-year-old Ruven Maggen(ph) says he admires the soldiers who refused orders to evacuate the settlers.

Mr. RUVEN MAGGEN (Yeshiva Student): I think it's good, because they shouldn't do, like, things against the country. They are meant protect Israel, not to evacuate it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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