Looming Gaza pullout sows division in Israeli army

As a combat soldier in an Israeli army engineers battalion, Avi Bieber had always volunteered for the toughest missions.

But when the 19-year-old, U.S.-born corporal was ordered to take part in pre-withdrawal operations in Gaza's main settlement bloc, he refused, becoming a hero to many Jewish settlers but conjuring up nightmare scenarios for the military's top brass.

Captured on camera shouting "Jews do not expel Jews" before being hustled off to jail, Bieber highlighted a growing secular-religious divide within the army over Israel's pullout from the occupied Gaza Strip set to begin on Aug. 17.

Israeli officials are now worried that many other soldiers may follow his example, which would hamper Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's "Disengagement Plan" and threaten the unity of the Middle East's most powerful fighting force.

Refusing an order is considered a deep taboo in Israel's "citizens army." "It's a significant crack in the armor," said Israeli military historian Martin Van Creveld. "If the 'refusenik' phenomenon continues, it could create problems."


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