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More than 40,000 Israeli soldiers are expected to take part in next month's withdrawal from Gaza and the evacuation of the Jewish settlements there. Israelis opposed to the withdrawal are encouraging Israeli soldiers to refuse to participate. They say that if enough refuse, the Gaza withdrawal plan won't go through. Israeli army experts say they're not worried. NPR's Linda Gradstein reports.
LINDA GRADSTEIN reporting:
It's become a part of every demonstration against the Gaza withdrawal.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
GRADSTEIN: As Israeli police and soldiers approach demonstrators who are blocking roads, the protesters, many of them teen-agers, demand of the soldiers (Hebrew spoken) `Refuse. Refuse the orders.' The call has also been issued by a group of rabbis; among them, a former chief rabbi of Israel, who said that helping the Israeli government pull out of Gaza violates Jewish law.
In the past week three soldiers have refused to obey orders. The most publicized is 19-year-old, American-born Avi Bieber. He was sentenced to 56 days in jail, a sentence military analysts say was harsh and meant as a message to other soldiers. Yossi Alpher, a former Israeli intelligence official, says the army acted properly by imposing a stiff sentence.
Mr. YOSSI ALPHER (Former Israeli Intelligence Official): I think it's very important to deal forthrightly and toughly with people who, in effect, are deserters. And this kid got 56 days in jail, which I think is fully justified.
GRADSTEIN: Israeli officials say another handful of reserve officers have informed their commanders they will not participate in the pullout. In these cases, the soldiers are quietly reassigned. According to media reports, there are more than 60 of these cases. In a speech last week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon harshly condemned soldiers refusing to participate in the Gaza withdrawal.
Prime Minister ARIEL SHARON (Israel): (Through Translator) We must all remember that the calls for refusal and the attempt to disrupt life in Israel threaten the existence of the nation as a Jewish and a democratic state.
GRADSTEIN: Opponents of the pullback bristle at statements like these from the prime minister. Eve Harrow, a spokeswoman for the Jewish settlers, says Sharon refused to hold a national referendum on the Gaza withdrawal, afraid it would be voted down. And, she says, the pullback will not bring peace.
Ms. EVE HARROW (Settler Spokeswoman): I don't see that our security is going to get any better after we go through all these terribly traumatic things. As a matter of fact, I see that it's going to be worse. When I go on the Hamas Web site--we're not talking about--you know, I'm not going on a right-wing Jewish Web site. I'm talking about the Hamas Web site, where they openly say that they've imported Qassam missiles into Gaza.
GRADSTEIN: Harrow says the Israeli withdrawal will only encourage more terrorism by Palestinians, who will celebrate the pullback from Gaza as a victory for violence.
Nobody knows how much refusal there will actually be in the ranks. An Israeli group against the withdrawal says it has 20,000 signatures of soldiers and reservists who say they will refuse. It's not clear how many of these will actually be involved in the pullback. Brigadier General Eival Giladi, a senior adviser to Sharon, says the numbers will be small.
Brigadier General EIVAL GILADI (Senior Adviser to Ariel Sharon): I don't think that you're going to see a lot of those once action is being taken. There is a dynamic of a unit once it's operate. And many of those people that--even if they hesitate and then think one way or another, once the unit is operating, they will operate within the unit as the unit does.
GRADSTEIN: Some Israeli analysts say that even if the refusal is not widespread, the fact that it happens at all would be bad news for Israeli society. Moshe Halbertal, a professor of philosophy at Hebrew University, says Israelis have always been bitterly divided over political issues, but there was always an agreement that the army should not be involved in politics.
Professor MOSHE HALBERTAL (Hebrew University): There is a basic social contract here that is being shattered. And the social contract was there is a big distinction, division, between the left and the right, and we accept the result of the democratic process. And then the left will defend the settlers for 30 years, though it's against everything they stand for, expecting a reciprocal behavior on the other side. That's the very essence of what holds this society together.
GRADSTEIN: Prime Minister Sharon says no matter what happens Israel is pulling out of Gaza this summer, and he says he expects the vast majority of soldiers to do their jobs, even if they bitterly oppose the pullout. Linda Gradstein, NPR News, Jerusalem.
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