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Its settled: Settlers unsettle settler state “democratic” setting

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Settlers influence in Israeli army growing

By Charles Levinson
Agence France Presse | 26 October 2006

OFRA SETTLEMENT, West Bank, Oct 26 2006– In the summer, Israeli General Elazar Stern paid a series of house calls around the country to inform families that their loved ones had died in battle in Lebanon. He did not spend much time traveling to Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest and most secular city.

“I see the homes that I go to for condolence visits and then there are the homes that I am not going to, the homes that do not know bereavement, and will not,” said the general. “I hardly go to Tel Aviv at all.”

In wars past, Israel’s secular left made up the backbone of the army. Today, that is slowly changing. The national religious camp, dominated by the Jewish settler movement, is growing more influential in the military, observers say.

It is a trend that could impact Defense Minister Amir Peretz’s vow to evacuate dozens of illegal West Bank outposts. During the pullout from the Gaza Strip last year, settler leaders called on soldiers to refuse orders.

Only a few dozen ultimately did, but in the occupied West Bank, home to many more settlers, an expanding population in a far more Biblically important territory, many believe the numbers of defiant soldiers could increase.

“There’s been a process over the years of people from the national religious camp and particularly from the settler community moving into more prominent roles in the army,” says Gershom Gorenberg, author of “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements.”

For those Israelis who oppose the settlements — a majority according to recent opinion polls — it is an unsettling trend.

In the left-leaning Haaretz daily, columnist Aryeh Amihai lashed out at the “pathological symbiosis between the settlers and the IDF” — the Israel Defense Forces.

“There is always a rustling of discomfort with people identified with the religious right taking on top roles in the army,” adds Gorenberg. “Where do their loyalties lie, is essentially the whisper in the background.”

Historically the army has been one of the country’s most influential institutions and the traditional springboard to political power.

Beginning at least a decade ago, the national religious camp, the hard core Zionist and Orthodox ideology prevalent among the settler movement, launched a concerted drive to increase their profile in the military.

“There is a major sociological revolution that has gone on in the past decade or so that has placed the religious national youth in the forefront of the army,” maintains Yisrael Medad, a settler columnist, blogger and pundit.

In the early 1990s, settler leaders established a pair of year-long prep-schools that combined religious study with military training.

The program has been wildly successful. Today there are 15 such schools and settlers now say they are disproportionately represented inside the army’s officer corps and its most elite front line ranks.

Medad claims that one-third of all field commanders from the rank of lieutenant to captain are from the national religious camp, mostly settlers, a claim ridiculed by a professional army in which national service is compulsory.

“Service in the IDF is mandatory as required by Israeli law, and is enforced upon all sectors of Israeli society,” the army told AFP.

“The IDF does not separate religious from irreligious soldiers statistically, nor does the IDF inquire about the soldiers’ religious affinities.”

Stern, the condolence delivering general, didn’t say so explicitly but the casualty rolls show that a disproportionate share of his house calls were to West Bank settlements.

Six of the 121 soldiers killed during the Lebanon war hailed from the 45 settlements under the umbrella of the Binyamin Region Council, per capita, 10 times the nation-wide average.

Perhaps the most trumped-up tale of Israeli heroism in Lebanon involved an army major from the illegal West Bank outpost of Hayovel, which has long been slated for evacuation.

As the story goes, Major Roi Klein, a pious, 30-year-old bfather of two infant sons threw himself on a grenade, sacrificing himself to save his men.

Today, settler leaders exploit such tales of sacrifice to rally support for their cause.

“No way the Israeli public will agree to have a national hero’s home destroyed and to have his widow and young children thrown out onto the streets,” says Aliza Herbst, spokeswoman for the municipal body that governs 45 West Bank settlements including Klein’s.

The anti-settlement movement Peace Now this summer slammed the illegal expansion of settlements during the war, in violation of the internationally backed roadmap paving the way for peace and a Palestinian state.

But although the Israeli army has a powerful impact on policy, Gorenberg sees no need for alarm just yet when it comes to the settlers’ lobby.

“It’s not as if they have become the army. I think they tend to exaggerate their role in the army as part of their strategy to portray themselves as the vanguard of Israeli society.”

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