Israel investigates pro-settler demo during army parade
October 24, 2009
* Protest comes amid U.S. pressure for settlement freeze.
* Army calls rebellion by conscripts "disgraceful".
JERUSALEM, Oct 23 (Reuters) - A group of Israeli army conscripts who disrupted their swearing-in ceremony by calling for continued Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank were threatened on Friday with dismissal.
Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in no rush to remove settlements from occupied land where Palestinians seek statehood, Thursday's protest gave voice to nationalists' fears that he will eventually cave in to U.S. peacemaking pressure.
According to Army Radio, several members of the Kfir (Lioncub) infantry brigade waved placards with slogans such as "We did not enlist in order to evacuate Jews" as they paraded in Jerusalem to mark the end of basic training.
That the incident took place at the Western Wall prayer plaza, where generations of Israeli troops have sworn their allegiance to the Jewish state, sharpened the infraction.
"This was a disgraceful disciplinary aberration that will be addressed," a military spokesman said in a statement. "The Kfir commander will, furthermore, consider whether these soldiers will continue to serve in the brigade."
The U.S. administration said on Thursday that Israel had shown "willingness to curtail settlement activity", though Netanyahu has resisted calls for a total freeze on construction.
Israeli officials appear instead to be focussed on dismantling outposts erected by settlers without government approval. Some of the outposts are meagre lean-tos, others full-fledged annexes to established settlements. Israel pledged to crack down on them in 2003. Implementation has been fitful.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has made a resumption of peace negotiations with Israel conditional on a construction freeze in settlements in the West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, which Israel captured from Jordan in a 1967 war.
The World Court calls the settlements illegal and Palestinians say the enclaves could deny them a viable state. Israel's conscript military helped police the 2005 removal of settlements from the Gaza Strip, a controversial move that some soldiers opposed. One platoon catering to religious Jewish servicemen was disbanded for refusing evacuation orders.
Kfir was set up to battle Palestinian guerrillas in the West Bank. Such duties have diminished amid a law-and-order drive by Abbas's U.S.-backed administration, which wants to project power in the face of the rival Hamas Islamists now ruling Gaza.
"It became clear to all the soldiers that they would be going to Judea and Samaria, where there are not a lot of combat missions," an unnamed brother of one of the Kfir protesters said, using biblical terms for the West Bank, territory that many Israelis consider their birthright. "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 the ideological levels," he told Army Radio.
Kfir has been under military investigation for several high-profile cases where Palestinian civilians complained of abuse by the brigade. Its former commander was reprimanded for sanctioning use of force during questioning of suspects.