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Israeli faults rabbis' urgings on settlements

General hits call to refuse orders

JERUSALEM -- Israel's army chief of staff yesterday condemned a call from scores of rabbis on observant soldiers to refuse to obey orders to evacuate Jewish settlements under next year's planned Israeli pullout from the Gaza Strip.

The statement by Lieutenant General Moshe Yaalon, broadcast on local media, reflected army officials' growing concern that a significant number of soldiers would heed the rabbis' call, causing a crisis in the army.

"Insubordination is dangerous to us as an army, as a society, and as a nation. This is not legitimate, and inappropriate," Yaalon said. "Don't put us in impossible situations."

"I call upon all those involved, from across the political spectrum, to show responsibility and not to undermine the [military]," he said at a navy memorial ceremony.

Under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "disengagement plan," Israel would withdraw from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements next year, removing 8,600 settlers from their homes.

Last night, an Israeli soldier was slain in a drive-by shooting at an isolated settlement between the Palestinian towns of Tulkarem and Jenin, near the West Bank settlements slated for evacuation, the military said.

The Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militant group tied to Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction, claimed responsibility.

Sharon's plan, though supported by a strong majority of Israelis in opinion polls, has infuriated many in his hard-line Likud party and his former allies in the settlers' movement.

Opponents recently have begun waging verbal attacks on the prime minister. Opposition leader Shimon Peres said the attacks are reminiscent of the poisonous political climate that preceded that 1995 assassination of then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In the months before he was killed by an ultranationalist Jew, Rabin came under a barrage of increasingly personal verbal assaults from hard-liners -- including Sharon -- opposed to his peace deals with the Palestinians.

New posters in the campaign against the plan accuse Sharon of "tearing the nation apart." Others show a picture of Sharon, the word "crazy" and three question marks across his forehead.

"While I am very much worried about the climate, I believe that all the security measures have been taken to defend anybody, including the prime minister," Peres said.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said he, too, is concerned.

"We had enough a decade ago," he said of Rabin's assassination. "There is no way we can allow ourselves to experience the same trauma again."

The campaign against the plan has been growing more intense in the run-up to next week's Parliament vote. Settler leaders have demanded a national referendum on the plan, but Sharon has dismissed that as a delaying tactic.

Last week, Avraham Shapira, a former chief rabbi of Israel, ruled that Sharon's plan violates Jewish law and said observant soldiers should not participate in removing settlers from their homes. Sixty other rabbis signed on to Shapira's statement.

Analysts cautioned that even a small-scale mutiny could paralyze the army, where many observant soldiers serve in combat and other elite units.

"If the calls by the rabbis lead to a wave of refusing orders, it could become the greatest internal challenge to the army since the war began," military analyst Amos Harel wrote in the Haaretz daily.

The rabbis' call has been harshly criticized by many across the political spectrum, including the religious kibbutz movement and even some settler leaders, who say that maintaining the fabric of Israel's democracy is more important.

Also yesterday, troops in Gaza killed two Palestinian militants seen crawling toward the border fence with Israel east of the town of Beit Hanoun, the army said. The militants were trying to plant a bomb.

In a separate incident, soldiers shot and critically wounded a Palestinian woman who was in a taxi outside the main Gaza settlement bloc, Palestinians said.

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