Surrounded by over 180,000 Palestinians, the hundreds of Israeli settlers in the ancient city of Hebron are always braced for a siege. On Tuesday, however, their adversaries were not angry Palestinians but the very same Israeli police and security forces that usually protect the settlers.
The confrontation came after two families of religious Zionists defied an Israeli court order evicting them from apartments illegally seized in a Hebron marketplace. The settlers ringed the building with barbed wire and burning tires, welded shut the doors and windows of the apartments, and invited in swarms of teenage zealots armed with rocks, eggs and light bulbs, which they began hurling down when police advanced on the building at 6 a.m. The squatters were evicted, but during the ensuing clash, 11 policemen were wounded along with four activists.
The Hebron incident has resounded like an explosion deep inside Israeli army barracks. Many Israeli soldiers and officers in the elite combat units were raised in illegal settlements within the occupied Palestinian territories, and their sympathies lie with their religious Zionist brethren in Hebron.
When the Duchifat Battalion was ordered on Monday to support the police in clearing out the settlers, 38 soldiers refused to obey. Using cellphones, the soldiers immediately called their rabbis for moral guidance. They also called their parents, who tried to block the soldiers' bus from leaving its base in the Jordan Valley. "It was not for this that my son joined the army," one father, Moshe Rosenfeld, told Israeli Army Radio.
Eventually, all but 12 soldiers agreed to follow orders. In the past, army officers have been lenient about sending in religious Zionist troops to clear out settlers, looking the other way when they failed to report for duty or called in sick. But this time, senior officers treated the defiance as a clear act of insubordination, a failure to recognize that in the Israeli Defense Force, an officer's orders supersede a rabbi's moral advice.
The rebel soldiers were sentenced to between 14 and 28 days in the brig and removed from combat duty. "This is a phenomenon that endangers the basis on which the IDF ([Israeli Defense Forces] operates, as an army of the people in a democratic country, and its obligations to carry out the tasks assigned to it," said General Gadi Shamni, chief of the Central Command.
The military is clearly concerned that the Hebron mini-insurrection may be a warning of what could occur on a wider scale if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tries to remove some of dozens oF illegal settlements in the West Bank, as demanded by the international community and the United States. Tuesday's operation, after all, involved the eviction of only two families, but required over 3,000 troops and policemen. The evacuation of an entire settlement, some officers say privately, could lead to widespread dissent within the army ranks.
The "refuseniks", as the Israeli press calls them, also have political support among the Israeli right wing. Two legislators from the religious-right parties issued a joint note of congratulations to the soldiers for "refusing to be the executioners of a blatantly immoral decision."
Palestinians in Hebron, whose lives are turned inside out by Israeli security measures to protect the handful of Jewish settlers living near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, said that while they were relieved to see the settlers evicted, they doubted that it represented a tougher stance by Olmert. "These families will be back," one Arab resident remarked grimly after watching the early morning tussle between police and Jewish settlers. Angered by the provocative presence of the right-wing Israelis in their midst, many Hebron Palestinians have turned to militants of their own, choosing candidates of the Islamist Hamas movement in local and legislative elections. One Hamas official in Hebron scoffed at the latest eviction, saying," This is Olmert trying to show the Americans that he's doing a good job." But having seen the fuss within the army that erupted over clearing out two families, Olmert will have had a sobering reminder of the challenges that face him in removing tens of thousands of West Bank settlers in order to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
With reporting by Jamil Hamad/Bethlehem and Aaron J. Klein/Jerusalem