Israeli newspapers reported the comments by Rabbi Avraham Shapira, an influential former chief rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of right-wing religious Jews, on Thursday.

Shapira is appealing to Israeli soldiers to refrain from dismantling Jewish settlements.

The statement adds weight to growing calls among right-wing rabbis for soldiers to refuse orders to dismantle settlements in the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank.

The move to dismantle settlements is part of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to withdraw from some Israeli-occupied areas next year.

"It's an offence. It's not allowed and they [the soldiers] must tell their commanders that it is forbidden," Rabbi
Shapira was quoted by newspapers as telling Besheva, a small-circulation religious weekly.

Right-wingers vigorously oppose Sharon's plan to remove all
21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the West Bank.

Disengagement plan

"Would they desecrate the Sabbath? Offences must not be
committed and they must declare [their unwillingness to do so]," Shapira said, adding that soldiers should choose imprisonment instead of following orders to dismantle the settlements.

Despite opposition, Sharon insists
his withdrawal plan will go ahead

About a quarter of Israel's population is considered religious. However, the proportion of Orthodox Jews is greater in army units which are likely to be called on to enforce settler evacuations.

Opinion polls show most Israelis support Sharon's plan to
"disengage" from conflict with the Palestinians.
  
But religious Jews stake a biblical claim to the West Bank and Gaza, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel has built over 140 settlements in these territories, a move many in the international community regard as illegal.

According to the CIA world factbook, there are about 187,000 illegal Israeli settlers in the West Bank, about 177,000 in East Jerusalem, 20,000 in the Golan Heights, and more than 5000 in the Gaza Strip.