The rabbis, some of whom having strong influence on religious soldiers serving in the Israeli army, have issued edicts prohibiting soldiers from obeying army orders to evict settlers from the Gaza Strip.

One prominent rabbi, Abraham Shapira, directly addressed the hesder (those who combine Talmudic studies with military service), exhorting them not to heed military orders to carry out the "unilateral disengagement" plan.

Other like-minded rabbis have likened a soldier taking part in carrying out the plan to eating pork, a serious sin according to Jewish religious law.

The calls have incensed the Israeli political as well as military establishment.

Danger to Zionism

Israeli Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon has condemned Rabbi Shapira's attempts at "politicising the army", saying that their efforts represent a "danger to Zionism".

The settlers' movement is now a
political force to reckon with

Several other Israeli officials have also denounced "efforts to implicate the army in political differences".

Moreover, Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz met on Wednesday with the religious leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in an effort to convince him to support the pullout plan.

Yosef reportedly told Mofaz that he would make up his mind after "consulting with the opponents of the plan".

However, if the problem is expected to persist, thousands of hesder soldiers would rather heed their rabbis' edicts than follow orders from their superiors in the army command.

Collision course

This prospect has forced Mofaz to propose the exclusion of "religious soldiers" from implementing the planned withdrawal from Gaza.

Settler leaders accuse Sharon of
planting 'the seeds of division'

A meeting between Sharon and settler leaders earlier this week ended in disarray after the Israeli prime minister rejected their demands for a national referendum over the disengagement plan.

The settler leaders described the meeting as "disgraceful and humiliating", and accused Sharon of "planting the seeds of division in Israel" and "pushing the country towards civil war".

Sharon reportedly sought to assure the settlers that his Gaza plan would serve to consolidate Jewish settlements in the West Bank and effectively prevent the realisation of a viable Palestinian state.

However, the settlers were not impressed by Sharon's "clarifications", and insisted that a referendum would be the only way to determine whether the people are for or against the planned withdrawal from Gaza.

Highly motivated

Sharon is averse to the referendum concept for several reasons. He calculates that he probably cannot count on the secular and largely apathetic pro-disengagement public to vote in large enough numbers to overwhelm the better organised and highly motivated settler camp.

"They will not accept the Knesset vote. They think they have monopoly over truth and over Judaism ... and will try to do everything possible to have their way"

Ahmad Tibi,
Arab Knesset member

Moreover, Sharon is apparently worried that his opponents within his own Likud party might conspire with the settlers to see to it that he loses the referendum, in which case he might be forced by public pressure to resign.

Meanwhile, the Israeli premier seems to have lost all hope of convincing the settlers to support his plan and maybe is thinking of using the stick rather than the carrot.

According to the Israeli press, Sharon may resort to freezing the "settlement division" within his office through which generous budgets are allocated for the settlements.

Widening rift

The measure would deprive the settlers of hundreds of millions dollars they receive annually as "stipends", "special inducement" and "special budgets".

Some observant Jewish soldiers
are being asked to defy orders

However, the measure would also deepen the widening rift in Israeli society and decidedly turn the settlers against Sharon in a manner reminiscent of the period leading up to the assassination of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

Indeed, the prospect of a settler embarking on assassinating Sharon is being taken very seriously by the Israeli domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet.

The Shin Bet decided has already beefed up security around Sharon after receiving intelligence information that settlers might either assassinate Sharon or carry out a bombing attack or a massacre of Muslim worshipers at the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem in order to thwart the disengagement plan.

Violence feared

On 25 October, the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is due to vote on the plan to withdraw from Gaza. It is estimated that between 65-67 out of the 120-member assembly will vote for the plan.

The Gaza pullout plan has further
polarised the Jewish population

If Sharon wins the vote, as expected, this would only increase the settlers' frustration and might push them to try stop the implementation of the plan by violent means.

Some settler leaders have already vowed to surround the Knesset building with thousands of demonstrators on the day voting will take place.

According to Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi, the settlers and their supporters will go to any extent to "topple Sharon and his plan".

"They will not accept the Knesset vote. They think they have monopoly over truth and over Judaism ... and will try to do everything possible to have their way."