The Israeli army is facing a crisis because many reservists are refusing to serve in the West Bank and Gaza for moral reasons, according to Israeli campaigners.
Ishai Menuchim, a spokesman for Yesh Gvuel (There's a Limit), who described himself as a major in the Israeli army reserve, said yesterday: "It is immoral to be there. The occupation is not democratic. It is evil to take part in an occupation."
As the conflict claimed the life of another Palestinian, Tayseer al-Omolee, 45, at Ramallah, in the West Bank, and Israeli forces fired rockets at the village of Beit Lahiya in Gaza, Mr Menuchim claimed the number refusing to serve was already much higher than during the previous Palestinian uprising. He also predicted that the number of refuseniks would swell.
One recent estimate is that 2,500 soldiers had refused to serve since the Palestinian uprising began in September.
He said that, of the refuseniks he had spoken with, many said they did not want to risk their lives on behalf of Jewish settlers.
Dodging military service is a divisive issue in Israel. One soldier released after serving a jail sentence said that his refusal had been on moral grounds. Contacted by phone during a long bus journey, however, he whispered that he did not want to talk about it at length, fearing the consequences if his opinions were overheard by other passengers.
There is resentment among some reservists, and among their parents, about being sent to the frontline, while ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt on religious grounds.
Of the 31 Israeli soldiers killed since September, five have been reservists.
Among the grievances is the lack of compensation for disruptions caused by absences from work.
The liberal Israeli daily, Ha'aretz, in an editorial yesterday warned that ignoring the reservists while giving favoured treatment to ultra-Orthodox Jews was causing serious harm. "If this is not fixed soon, the damage may turn out to be irreversible," it said.
The Israeli army is heavily dependent on reservists. Almost every male has to do three years in the army when they become 18; women serve two years.
They are then called up for about 30 days a year, an obligation that men can be under well into their 40s.
The army disputes that there is a serious refusenik problem and claimed that motivation among the soldiers, both full-time and reservists, was high.
Captain Sharon Feingold, an army spokeswoman, said that 95%-97% of reservists were reporting for duty, compared with 85% in the years leading up to the Palestinian uprising.
Officially, 837 people failed to report for duty in the period October to April. This compared, she said, with 1,059 during the same period the previous year. Those who refused to serve had received jail sentences, normally about two weeks to a month.
She claimed that statistics that had appeared in the Israeli press suggesting a drop in motivation had been misleading. They were based on questionnaires asking young people where they wanted to serve, and had been filled in while the peace talks werestill going on.
Mr Menuchim, still a reservist despite being jailed for refusing to serve in Lebanon, disputes the army claims.
He said the number of people in jail did not reflect the scale of the problem. He said that of 100 reservists who had contacted his organisation since the Palestinian uprising saying they would not serve in the West Bank or Gaza, only five had been sent to military court: one had been released and four had been jailed.
Of the remaining 95, their refusals had either been quietly brushed under the carpet or they had been posted within Israel.
He maintained that the situation will get worse.
The spiritual leader of Israel's Shas party provoked a row yesterday after the publication of a sermon in which he called on God to annihilate Arabs and rain missiles down upon them.
Israeli politicians from the left and right condemned the remarks. A Shas spokesman said he had been referring to Arab terrorists not all Arabs.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001