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In Israel, the other army of God emerges

Israeli border police stop Ultra-orthodox Jews from blocking the road during a demonstration against the desecration of the Sabbath in central Jerusalem, July 16, 2011. UPI/Debbie Hill
Israeli border police stop Ultra-orthodox Jews from blocking the road during a demonstration against the desecration of the Sabbath in central Jerusalem, July 16, 2011. UPI/Debbie Hill | License Photo

TEL AVIV, Israel, Sept. 14 (UPI) -- Israel is bracing for trouble over the Palestinians' expected move to declare statehood this month but there are fears that the real crisis will come from growing influence of right-wing Orthodox Jews in the Israeli armed forces, particularly the army.

This is reaching such proportions that Maj. Gen. Avi Zamir, until recently the chief of the military's Personnel Directorate, warned the General Staff that religious extremism must be stopped before the character and ethos of the military as a national institution is eroded beyond repair.

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Media commentators have been worrying that the scale of religious extremism in the military could encourage hard-liners among the 300,000 settlers in the West Bank, the core of the putative Palestinian state, to resist surrendering the territory as part of a peace plan.

The deepening national split between religious and secular Jews ultimately imperils the future of the Jewish state itself.

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"This is no longer Israel," leading historian Benny Morris lamented recently.

"A profound, internal, existential crisis has arrived. It stems in part from the changing nature of the country, more right-wing, more restrictive, far less liberal and far less egalitarian. Many moderate Israelis fear the country is heading for ruin."

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The enlistment into the military by more religious recruits has been under way for three decades. Much of the officer corps -- up to 30 percent by some estimates -- consists of men from extremist religious groups.

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Some army units, including elite combat units, are entirely made up of religious soldiers, many of them from West Bank settlements.

"We've reached the point where a critical mass of religious soldiers is trying to negotiate with the army about how and for what purpose military force is employed on the battlefield," Yigal Levy, a political sociologist who has written several books on the Israeli military, said in a 2009 interview with The National, a United Arab Emirates newspaper.

He said the growing power of the religious right in the military reflects wider social trends.

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This has generally been seen as expanding since the hawkish Binyamin Netanyahu became prime minister for the second time in 2009 and heads a staunchly right-wing coalition that seems determined never to relinquish the West Bank and the settlers dug in there.

The so-called "Kibbutz Generation" of secular, left-wing pioneers who spearheaded the creation of Israel and dominated the military for decades began vanishing in the 1980s, replaced by "religious youngsters and the children of the settlements," Levy noted.

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"I think that Israel's coming to a juncture where it has to answer the significant question of whether it wants to continue being a Jewish, democratic, Zionist, modern, enlightened state or shall we turn into a rabbinical 'Judeastan'," said Rafi Mann, who teaches communications at the Ariel University Center of Samaria.

"I see what's happening in the army as a sign and it's very worrying."

In October 2008, the liberal Haaretz newspaper reported that the Chief Military Rabbinate under direction of Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, a hard-line West Bank settler with links to far-right extremists, had expanded its educational activities to army combat units.

"In a number of cases it's religious brainwashing and, indirectly, also political brainwashing," the daily quoted one officer as saying.

The military has come under intense international condemnation for alleged war crimes committed during the December 2008 invasion of the Gaza Strip in which some 1,400 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians.

Before attacking, rabbis handed out pamphlets calling for the establishment of Greater Israel and urged soldiers that "when you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers."

In 2009, Defense Minister Ehud Barak cracked down hard on army-linked seminaries that produce many of Israel's combat troops because the young soldiers refused to move against settlers in the West Bank.

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Barak's action incensed the right wing and underlined the military's growing unease about the widening rift between the ultra-Orthodox, who believe God gave the Judea and Samaria -- the biblical name for the West Bank -- to the children of Israel and secular Israelis who support ending the 44-year-old occupation of the West Bank.

Barak's efforts, one commentator observed, "appears more than anything to be a belated attempt to put the Jewish fundamentalist genie back in the bottle. But it will take a lot more to accomplish that."

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