Israel army punishes troops for settlement protest

AP News
Posted: Nov 17, 2009 2:17 PM

The Israeli army punished six soldiers, sending two to prison, for protesting the army's demolition of structures at an unauthorized settler outpost in the West Bank, the military said Tuesday.

The soldiers hung a banner Monday at an army base in the West Bank, proclaiming their opposition to using the army for such missions. The soldiers faced courts martial, the military said.

A photograph of them hoisting the banner was featured widely in Israeli media on Tuesday.

Other soldiers carried out orders to dismantle two makeshift houses Monday at the outpost of Negohot, near the city of Hebron.

The six soldiers, who serve in an infantry unit in the West Bank, refused to take part in the demolition, staging the protest instead at their army base. After courts martial, two were jailed for a month and dismissed from their combat unit. Two others were sentenced to several weeks in military prison, and the remaining two were confined to their base for a month, the military said Tuesday.

Negohot is one of dozens of wildcat outposts put up by settlers without government authorization, though the government provides services to many of them.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was no place for insubordination in the military, adding commanders would deal with such incidents with a "strong hand."

"If you promote insubordination, you cause the country to fall apart," Netanyahu said during a tour of a naval base on Tuesday.

Troops in the same infantry unit staged a similar protest last month. Though both protests involved only a few soldiers, their actions have stoked tensions in the military, which tries to distance itself from politics. A military statement said the political protest by active duty soldiers was fundamentally wrong.

"Such acts damage the strength and unity of combat units," it said.

The protests have raised concerns because at least some of the soldiers involved in both incidents were from the Orthodox Jewish minority, which has taken on an increasingly prominent role in the military and tends to support West Bank settlements.

Critics say the army should not be used for operations against Israeli citizens. Instead, they say, police should handle settler issues, while the army patrols the borders and areas of conflict.

The settlements are a major point of contention between Israel and the Palestinians. The Palestinians refuse to restart peace negotiations with Israel unless the government freezes all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Several lawmakers from hardline parties spoke out in support of the soldiers. Hardline rabbis have also spoken out in favor of refusing orders to evacuate settlements, and some have even offered money to the families of troops imprisoned for insubordination.

Military service in Israel is compulsory, and troops are drawn from communities with widely varying political views. If it were to spread, insubordination on political grounds could destabilize the military and Israeli society at large.

Several soldiers refused orders during Israel's pullout from the Gaza Strip in 2005, saying they thought dismantling Jewish settlements was wrong. However, the vast majority of the thousands of troops and police, including some who opposed the policy, carried out their orders.

There have also been cases of troops with dovish views refusing orders or refusing to serve entirely because they disagree with Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.