JERUSALEM — Embarrassed by what it called "a disgraceful disciplinary aberration," the Israeli military announced Friday that it would punish soldiers who staged a pro-settler demonstration during their swearing-in ceremony at Jerusalem's Western Wall.
Thursday's protest reflected fears by right-wing nationalists that the conservative-led government would eventually yield to U.S. pressure to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and evict Jewish settlers from the West Bank. The young soldiers, who were being sworn in to an elite infantry unit, the Kfir Brigade, held up banners declaring their refusal to obey orders to enforce any such decision.
"We didn't enlist in order to evict Jews," one banner read.
The demonstrators, who included some soldiers' relatives, were a tiny minority in a crowd of 700 but drew television coverage and wide public attention because of the venue, the iconic wall where for decades Israeli troops have sworn allegiance to the Jewish state.
In a written statement Friday, the military said the Kfir Brigade commander would take action against the soldiers, including possible dismissal from the army.
The Obama administration is pressing Israel to halt the growth of existing settlements in order to revive peace talks that were halted last year. An accord on Palestinian statehood would presumably force tens of thousands of Jews to leave established settlements in the West Bank. Israeli nationalists are more immediately concerned about government promises to start removing some of the 100 or so outposts erected by settlers without approval.
About 300,000 settlers live among 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War. Many Israelis refer to the territory as Judea and Samaria, consider those biblical lands their birthright, and are loath to relinquish them.
The brother of one of the protesters told Army Radio that the group rebelled after learning they would be deployed to the West Bank.
"There are not a lot of combat missions" in the West Bank, the brother said.
"Instead, they know they are going to take on the settlers. And everyone knows what the damage of that is, both on the personal and ideological levels."
A soldier involved in the protest said on the same program: "We wanted to show that our role is to protect Israeli citizens and not to evict them from their homes in their ancestral lands." Neither man who spoke on the air was identified by name.
One banner held up at the ceremony read, "We won't evacuate Homesh." That small settlement in the Samarian Hills was dismantled in 2005, at the same time Israel unilaterally withdrew all 8,000 of its settlers from the Gaza Strip. The army helped force those evictions, and one platoon in Gaza was disbanded for refusing to take part.
Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpe, head of the extreme-right SOS Israel organization, applauded Thursday's protesters for "exemplary conduct," and said he would reward their families with thousands of dollars.
The military's reaction was in line with the views of most senior officers.
At a ceremony Wednesday marking the end of his service as chief of the Central Command, Maj. Gen. Gadi Shamni said the government "must publicly denounce radical right elements in Judea and Samaria and exercise zero tolerance toward them."