JERUSALEM — Israel's top military officials spoke out Tuesday against calls for disobedience after rabbis urged religiously devout soldiers to refuse to take part in the removal of Jewish settlers from the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank.
Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Lt. Gen. Moshe Yaalon, the army chief of staff, said such appeals were placing a grave strain on the military, one of the most venerated institutions in Israeli society.
"The calls several rabbis have been making for disobedience cannot be tolerated and must be condemned," Mofaz said during a ceremony in the port city of Ashdod commemorating members of the navy killed in combat. "Disobedience will lead to collapse, and this is precisely what our enemy has been waiting for."
Speaking at the same ceremony, Yaalon said such resistance "endangers us as an army, as a society and as a state."
Their remarks came amid a sharpening debate over Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to evacuate all 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza and four in the northern West Bank by late 2005.
Settlers and their allies depict the pullout as a forcible expulsion of Jews from areas they see as part of their biblical birthright. In recent days, prominent rabbis have called on religiously observant soldiers to defy orders to evacuate the settlements, saying that carrying out such commands would violate Jewish law.
Rabbi Avraham Shapira prompted the latest exchange last week by urging soldiers to tell their commanders they would not carry out evacuation orders. He said obeying such orders would be tantamount to "desecrating the Sabbath and eating non-kosher food."
Along with Shapira's remarks, in a weekly religious publication, 60 rabbis from the settlement movement said evacuating the communities contradicted "Torah commandments."
On Tuesday, the daily newspaper Haaretz reported that two influential rabbis had also endorsed soldiers' refusing to carry out such orders, though not as part of an organized campaign.
But a separate group of rabbis representing religiously oriented kibbutzim, or collective communities, said pullout opponents should not involve the army in trying to block the plan.
It is unclear what impact the rabbis' appeals for disobedience would have on the planned withdrawal, which is to be voted on Monday in parliament.
By advocating disobedience, the settlers' supporters are adopting a high-profile tactic of Israeli activists who have promoted the cause of soldiers who refuse to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. In a nation where service is compulsory and the army well regarded, conscientious objectors have gotten wide publicity and rattled the political establishment.
Sharon's former chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, said in a recent newspaper interview that letters signed last year by pilots and commandos who refused to carry out duties in the occupied territories were among the factors prompting Sharon to move toward unilateral withdrawal.
An estimated one-third of Israel's 186,500 regular troops are observant Jews, some of them members or graduates of academies that combine military and religious training. Several rabbis who have urged soldiers to refuse orders are affiliated with those schools.
Under current plans, responsibility for removing settlers who defy eviction orders will fall to Israeli police, who would be protected by troops.
Stuart Cohen, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, said the rabbis' appeals were unlikely to spur large numbers of soldiers to refuse orders.
"My own feeling is that the phenomenon -- if it occurs at all -- will be very limited," said Cohen, who has written about religion in the Israeli military.
Cohen said devout soldiers had refused to carry out orders in cases where doing so would violate the ban on work during the Sabbath. But he knew of no examples of soldiers disobeying instructions on ideological grounds.
The prime minister's plan, which calls for removing about 8,000 settlers from Gaza and several hundred from the West Bank, has enraged settlement leaders, with whom Sharon was once closely aligned.
The harsh rhetoric has sparked concern over possible violence by right-wing Jewish extremists or even civil war.
Shimon Peres, leader of the left-leaning Labor Party, said in remarks published Tuesday that he feared radicals might try to assassinate Sharon. Peres said the charged climate reminded him of the period preceding the 1995 slaying of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was shot by a young Israeli who opposed an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians.
"I hope that the security establishment ... is protecting the prime minister well, since the incitement is terrible and disturbing," Peres told the daily newspaper Maariv.
In other developments, an Israeli soldier was killed by Palestinian gunmen Tuesday near the Mevo Dotan settlement in the northern West Bank, the military said. The community is not slated for evacuation.
Earlier, Israeli soldiers in the Gaza Strip shot to death two Palestinians with a bomb who were crawling toward the Erez border crossing into Israel, the military said.