Soldiers’ Testimonies from Operation Cast Lead, Gaza 2009
Israel’s Religious Right and the Question of Settlements
One evening last October, several hundred new recruits to the Shimshon Battalion filed into the vast plaza adjoining the Western Wall in Jerusalem. At a site normally thronged with worshipers, the soldiers gathered to be sworn in to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), surrounded by parents and well-wishers who snapped pictures and recorded the proceedings with handheld video cameras. One of the videos would soon make news, capturing the moment when, instead of proudly reciting the oath of loyalty in which military induction ceremonies traditionally culminate in Israel, two of the recruits unfurled a banner that left the nature of their loyalties unclear. “Shimshon Does Not Evacuate Homesh,” the banner proclaimed.
Homesh is a Jewish settlement whose existence may have slipped the minds of some Israelis, not least since, officially speaking, it doesn’t exist anymore. Situated on a steep hill a few miles northwest of Nablus, the remote, sparsely populated outpost was one of four West Bank settlements from which Israel withdrew in 2005 in connection with the Gaza disengagement plan carried out by Ariel Sharon. Houses were demolished, residents were relocated, and the area surrounding the vacated village was turned into a closed military zone. This hasn’t stopped some messianic Jewish settlers from returning to rebuild it. Again and again in recent years, the IDF has dispatched soldiers to remove them, but the settlers keep coming back, organizing pilgrimages, opening a yeshiva, and turning the ruins of Homesh into a symbol of their spiritual resolve.
The members of the Shimshon Battalion who held up the banner at the induction ceremony were letting their commanders know that, if ordered to dislodge the settlers from Homesh again, they would refuse, out of loyalty to God. The Israeli military wasted no time in dismissing their gesture of defiance as “a disgraceful disciplinary aberration.” Those responsible were sentenced to twenty days in prison, expelled from the brigade, and denounced in a speech before the Israeli Knesset by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Yet a few weeks later, another sign appeared, this one suspended from the roof of a dining hall on a military base by members of the Nahshon Battalion, which declared, in solidarity, “Nahshon Also Does Not Expel.” Two of the soldiers involved were squad leaders who, earlier that day, had refused an order to block right-wing activists from reaching another West Bank settlement where the Israeli Civil Administration had ordered the demolition of two illegal buildings. This was followed by a third sign, put up at the training base of the Kfir Brigade: “Kfir Does Not Expel Jews.”
Until recently, displays of disobedience in the Israeli army were mainly carried out by so-called “refuseniks” on the left who risked being branded traitors (and sent to prison) to avoid serving in the occupied territories. The refuseniks making noise today come from Israel’s religious right, and they want to preserve …