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Israel’s army chief indicated tough action would be taken against a group of reserve soldiers and officers who refused to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, saying Friday that their refusal is an incitement to rebellion.

Last week, 52 reservists from front-line combat units published a petition in Israeli newspapers declaring their refusal to serve in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The petition, appearing on the group’s Web site, has since grown to 110.

The petition has set off the most intense debate yet in Israel about the military’s actions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the past 16 months of fighting with the Palestinians. Some of those signing the petition said they were greatly troubled by orders given to them. One soldier said he was court-martialed after refusing to fire from a machine gun at a civilian area.

Ami Ayalon, former chief of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, said Friday that while soldiers should not refuse to serve, they should decline to carry out orders they consider immoral.

“I’m worried about how few refusals (of orders) there are by soldiers in the army,” Ayalon told Israel TV’s Channel Two. “To shoot a youth who is unarmed is a blatantly illegal order. The number of children who have been killed in the last year and a half worries me greatly. … In each case, was there no other choice? Did we have to shoot in order to kill? That’s a question that should worry us all.”

The armed forces chief, Lt. Gen. Shaul Mofaz, defended the army’s performance. Mofaz said senior officers among the conscientious objectors would face suspension and removal from their positions. “If they are noncompliant at that point, we have ways to deal with them,” he said.

“In my eyes, it’s more than refusal to serve, it’s incitement to rebellion,” Mofaz told Channel Two. “It’s a grave, unprecedented act.”

The group says its aim is to sign up 500 reservists and to prod the government to withdraw troops from the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“We are willing to serve in the (army) as a defense force but not as an occupation force,” Amit Moshiach, a spokesman for the soldiers who signed the petition, told Israel Radio.

In a declaration published with the petition, the group said it is willing to carry out any mission in defense of the state — but that Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza “does not serve this purpose.”

The occupation is corrupting Israeli society and causing the army to lose its “humane character,” the statement said.

There have been relatively few conscientious objectors in Israel. The group that came forward last week was the largest since the current round of fighting began.

Most Israeli men do three years of compulsory army service, and are expected to do about a month of reserve duty per year until their mid-40s.