The IDF Is Disintegrating

The unavoidable conclusion is that the military command is losing control over its forces in the West Bank.

In September 2004, Haaretz military commentator Ze'ev Schiff published an item that attracted minimal attention: The defense establishment had decided to lease the services of a satellite that would photograph the areas of the West Bank in order to document the settlement project. The reason, according to Schiff, was the difficulty in obtaining full and reliable information about the settlements, in part because the person in the Civil Administration responsible for gathering the information had for years been an officer who is himself a settler.

The story reflected a process that is in full swing: the disintegration of the army when it comes to its control over forces serving in the West Bank. Relations between the army, the settlers and the Palestinians, as they are reflected in the events of recent months, clearly illustrate that.

The bias of the army is naturally in favor of the settlers, over the Palestinians. This bias was strengthened by the deployment of the military force in three circles. The first circle is regional defense, reserve units, made up of settlers, that participate in the settlements' daily defense. In this context, the army entrusted the settlers with weapons as reserve soldiers, and the result was the growth of armed militias in the territories. These settlers constitute a human shield against the majority Arab population, a service they were to provide in exchange for generous subsidies from the state, channeled to the settlements and to their armed residents. The army has limited control over the activity of these militias, under whose aegis settlers harm Palestinians, seize control of land, and the like.

The second circle is composed of the six policing battalions that regularly serve in the territories and are united in the framework of the Kfir Brigade. The regular deployment of a military force within a civilian community that it is supposed to protect, blurs the boundaries between the settlers and the soldiers. The blurring is physical, since many settlers serve in these units as well, some of the units are deployed in the settlements themselves, settlements have been built on army bases, etc. But it is also cultural, insofar as the commanders try to maintain proper relations with the settlers.

In addition, a significant percentage of the soldiers in the policing battalions are graduates of yeshivas whose ideological bias is clear, and who are subject to external rabbinical influence, while half the battalion commanders of the Kfir Brigade are Orthodox. We recall the incident in which a company in the Duchifat Battalion was told to provide protection during the eviction of the Jewish families from the wholesale market in Hebron in August 2007. Twelve out of 40 soldiers, most of them Orthodox, refused.

The third circle is that of other units, reservists and regular army, who reinforce the activity in the territories. About half of the graduates of the officers training school Bahad 1 are religious; the graduates of the Orthodox mekhinot (pre-army programs combining study and military preparation) and the hesder yeshivas (combining study and military service) constitute over 10 percent of the army's combat force; the settlers constitute about 5 percent of combat soldiers (some overlapping the previous statistic), 1.3 times their proportion of the general population. A large percentage of these groups man the infantry brigades, which occasionally carry out activity in the territories. This percentage has grown as the "motivation crisis" among the established secular population has increased. What motivates the young religious men to enlist is not the need to protect the Palestinian olive pickers, or the desire to evacuate the Federman farm, but the desire to "protect our home."

The 2005 report prepared by Talia Sasson about the illegal outposts presented a picture of dual networks - a formal and an informal one - when it comes to the political-military control of the settlement project. Commenting on the fact that the army refrains from enforcing the law, the report said: "'The spirit of the commander ... means that IDF soldiers must not examine the deeds of the settlers through the eyes of the law, since the settlers are carrying out a Zionist act in building the outposts, although it is illegal."

The unavoidable conclusion is that the military command is losing control over its forces in the West Bank. Whether the army and the politicians responsible for it admit it or not, a central consideration in refraining from evacuating illegal settlements is the simple understanding that the army lacks any real ability to carry out the evacuation without encountering massive refusal on the part of recruits, on whom, according to the army, it is dependent for manning its high-quality manpower reserves in a future war.

The dilemma of the local forces will increase as talks with the Palestinians strengthen the feeling that the struggle over future control in the territories is reaching a crucial point. Of course, the more the composition of the army changes, the more remote the possibility of implementing an agreement that will require the evacuation of settlements in the style of Gaza 2005. And the implementation is unlikely if the settlers and the Orthodox soldiers see little future benefit if they honor the unity of the army in the short term. The expression "IDF" is therefore liable to be a ceremonial term rather than a reflection of a unified entity. That, too, is a price of the occupation that should be taken into account.

Dr. Yagil Levy, a political sociologist at the Open University, is the author of "From the Army of the People to the Army of the Peripheries" (Hebrew).