A math question: if it took 3,000 Israeli troops and police to evict two families of Jewish settlers from the West Bank city of Hebron, how many would it take to clear out the 275,000 Jewish settlers living inside the Palestinian territories?
Two possible answers: a) it would require nearly every single policeman and soldier on duty in Israel today; b) zero, because it simply won't happen. Despite pressure by the Bush Administration and the rest of the international community for Israel to withdraw many of its Jewish citizens from 220 hilltop settlements and outposts in the disputed West Bank, such a move could be so divisive in Israel that no Prime Minister, especially one as embattled as Ehud Olmert, would risk it. Olmert won the March 2006 election in part by vowing to remove large numbers of settlements. But public opinion shifted against him after last summer's bungled war in Lebanon, and now he is too unpopular to try uprooting thousands of angry Jewish settlers, even though Israel's withdrawal is regarded as vital to any lasting accord with the Palestinians.
Will Olmert, or any future Prime Minister, be able to pull it off? A preview of this mammoth challenge was on display in Hebron, where 800 Jewish settlers live surrounded by 180,000 Palestinians in what Ha'aretz newspaper columnist Benny Ziffer has called "a kind of nature park of extremism." The Jewish settlers are protected at great cost to the nation by Israeli security forces. But after months of dithering and judicial pressure, Israel's government decided on Aug. 7 to remove two Jewish families squatting in Palestinian-owned buildings. At 6:20 a.m., riot police bashed in doors as teenage settlers on the roof hurled down stones, oil and eggs at the police, while Wagner played over loudspeakers. (As every Israeli knows, Wagner was Hitler's favorite composer, and the music was a brutish way for the benefit of TV news crews for the settlers to draw a parallel between Israel's security forces and the Nazis.)
The eviction itself went relatively smoothly, but the hard feelings it generated resound deep inside Israeli army barracks. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) were initially assigned only to secondary tasks, such as manning roadblocks to stop religious Zionist sympathizers from joining their Hebron brethren. Still, when orders were given to the Duchifat Battalion to assist evicting the two settler families, 38 out of 400 soldiers initially refused to obey after many called their rabbis on cell phones. Eventually, all but eight relented. These "refuseniks," as they were dubbed in the Israeli press, were slapped in the army prison for 14 to 28 days and some were banished from their élite combat unit.
The incident has left lingering doubts over whom soldiers will obey: their commanding officers, or hard-line rabbis who believe it's the destiny of Jews to occupy the Biblical lands of Judea and Samaria, even if they are now in disputed Palestinian territory? One senior IDF commander complains to TIME: "It seems like every soldier is consulting his own rabbi." The more extremist rabbis, he says, "want to change the system," bringing Israel's vibrant secular society more in line with their orthodox views.
Several refusenik soldiers rang Rabbi Re'em Hacohen, a former teacher of theirs at a yeshiva, or religious seminary, in the West Bank. "They were all loyal and responsible citizens, wracked by the decision whether to obey their superiors," says the rabbi, who urged them to act "with a clear conscience." The rabbi, himself a former soldier, lays blame on the army brass, not the refuseniks: "The army should be used to fight our enemies, not against our own society."
Interviews with officers, enlisted men and rabbis show that opposition to evicting Jewish settlers from Palestinian territories is widespread inside the army. One senior officer told TIME: "As a soldier, I'd prefer it if the government doesn't assign me the task of evacuating Jewish settlers, but if that's the mission, I promise we'll carry it out."
What worries politicians is that the religious Zionists, many born and raised in the West Bank settlements, are assuming a greater role as officers and soldiers inside élite combat units. Lieut. Colonel Dotan Razili, a commander at the Officers' Training Academy in the Negev Desert, estimates that 30% of his cadets are religious Zionists, even though they make up only 9% of the Israeli population, according to census figures.