The strain of attempting to maintain a contorted balance between pluralist democracy and special safe haven for Jews - in a country in which 20% of the population is not Jewish - was obvious on Tuesday.

The leader of a radical council for Jewish settlements, Pinchas Wallerstein, told General Moshe Yaalon on Monday he could not stop young colonists from refusing compulsory military service - should the prime minister attempt to implement any withdrawal.

Within 24 hours, and for the first time in its history, the Israeli army had to arrest one of its soldiers for urging his comrades to refuse any order to pull out of the occupied West Bank.

Sharon reacted by warning that insubordination would be punished and said he saw "no justification for refusal, neither by soldiers, nor by political leaders, nor by rabbis. There might be attempts at refusal but ... the law will be upheld."
 
However, the public row goes deeper than withdrawal, control over the army and military service. Writing in the Israeli newspaper Maariv on Tuesday, columnist Avraham Tirosh warned that in any "evacuation - if we get there - will be fire and blood and the country's foundations will collapse".

Exaggeration?

Wallerstein said he would die to stop the withdrawal from Israel's colonies and told the general the conflict could damage the army for a generation.

"If there will be dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of insubordinates, it will take the state of Israel decades to rehabilitate its society," he said.
 

A vocal minority rejects talk of
withdrawal from occupied lands

While some commentators have dismissed his assessment as an exaggeration, others have said the problem is an illusion. After all, Israel is keeping the vast majority of land it has illegally annexed.

Writing in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Binyamin Mikhail said what Sharon says about disengagement and what he does about it are two different things.

"In the West Bank ... bulldozers are still on the rampage, trees uprooted, fences erected, houses built, roads paved, and millions of shekels are enthusiastically being buried in the rocks," Mikhail wrote.

To occupy or not

Nevertheless, the debate over a Gaza Strip withdrawal is really about what kind of nation Israel wants to be, says former chief rabbi Avraham Shapira.

Shapira issued a ritual ruling last month forbidding soldiers to evacuate settlements, claiming a biblical right to hang on to land Israel seized in 1967 - by force if necessary.

Those who ignore the country's divine right do so at their own peril, he said.

"Evacuation - if we get there - will be fire and blood and the country's foundations will collapse"

Avraham Tirosh,
Maariv columnist

"Nobody, from wood choppers and water drawers to ministers and the prime minister, has any right to promote this destructive plan and it is forbidden to participate or cooperate with it in any way."

Shapira added: "Experience has proven that, heaven forbid, whoever harms the land of Israel, whoever thinks such thoughts, loses his place and loses his position of power."

But Israeli newspapers report that a significant number of citizens back Sharon's pullout plan and describe a battle between a secular democratic Israel and the religious right for the soul of the country.

Schoolyard fight

One such battle came to light on Monday, when a programme launched jointly by the Israeli army and the education ministry to talk to high-school students about the history of the army met with strong opposition.

Chaining themselves to the auditorium at the Tel Aviv Urban Aleph School, a group of students demanded an ordinary education and not "a pre-military course".

They protested against taking students on military heritage field trips and visits to army units.

Student Kerem Blumberg and her colleagues, all of whom would have been taught to shoot as early as the 11th grade, are expected to join the army after graduation.

Men serve three years while women serve two, making up an army in which almost 30% of the population serves at any one time.

Appeal for calm

Speaking to the Christian Science Monitor, the former dean of Haifa University's education faculty slammed the army's "misguided" programme.

Israeli society is the most
militarised in the world

Gaby Solomon said that there was no act threatening the existence of Israel and that Israel did not need to be a mobilised nation.

"For this government, maintaining our image as a nation in uniform constantly on alert, living in fear of annihilation, justifies the militarisation of schools," he said.

"One possible outcome of this is to have high school kids leaning in a militaristic, chauvinistic direction."

A new petition pressed for scrapping the programme, citing repeated abuses by Israeli forces against Palestinians in the occupied territories, including indiscriminate shootings, house demolitions and choking closures.

Devoid of values

But supporters of military induction argue that going into schools helps inspire "crucial values" such as the pursuit of excellence and service to the community and state.

The chairman of the Knesset education committee, Melli Pollishook-Bloch, said schools have become devoid of values.

"As institutions of learning, they are losing their value. People are looking for a solution, and one of the solutions is the army."

Whether right or wrong, Pollishook-Bloch's answer hints at Israel's contorted act of trying to be both a pluralist democratic state and a special safe haven for Jews.