JERUSALEM -- A group of 15 prominent rabbis challenged yesterday the secular authority of Israel, saying soldiers have a religious duty to refuse orders to evacuate army bases or settlements in the West Bank.
The rabbis said soldiers are under "biblical prohibition" not to withdraw from areas being turned over to the Palestinians under the peace negotiations with Israel.
The rabbis' ruling raised an instant alarm, igniting the explosive question whether Israel should be a religious or a secular state.
President Ezer Weizman immediately denounced the ruling as an "extremely grave" proclamation that "could shake the democratic principles" of Israel.
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin said the ruling "means anarchy." He accused the rabbis of trying to turn Israel into a "banana republic."
Even opposition political parties joined in criticizing the ruling. Likud coalition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, a firm opponent of concessions to the Palestinians, said, "There is no place for not obeying orders."
Several officials called for the rabbis to be prosecuted for inciting military disobedience.
The ruling, by a group headed by former Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira, set off a storm that has long been gathering, as debate over the peace process has split along religious-secular lines.
Many of the right-wing Jewish settlers base their claim to the West Bank on the grounds that the territory was part of the Land of Israel given to Jews by God.
Mr. Rabin lashed out at Orthodox rabbis in the United States last week -- calling them "ayatollahs" -- and also denounced rabbis in Israel who are working to scuttle his peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
The rabbis who met yesterday are religious leaders for many of the settlers and for an uncertain number of the 600,000 active-duty and reserve soldiers in the army.
"We have ruled that there is a biblical prohibition against evacuating Israeli army bases and handing the places over to the control of goyim" -- non-Jews -- said Rabbi Haim Druckman, one of those who issued the ruling yesterday.
"This poses a danger to lives and a danger to the existence of the country," he said.
Rabbi Shapira proclaimed last year that soldiers should refuse to evacuate settlements. But the ruling yesterday expanded that prohibition to evacuating even army posts.
The Israeli army is now preparing to evacuate its bases in Arab cities in the West Bank, as it promised in the 1993 peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians.
The government has said that it will not order the evacuation of any of the 144 Jewish settlements in the West Bank or Gaza Strip until final negotiations with the Palestinians are completed in three years.
About 130,000 Israeli settlers live among about 1 million Palestinians on the West Bank, which has been under military rule since it was captured by Israel in the 1967 war.
The evacuation of some Jewish settlements seems inevitable. Settler groups have called for civil disobedience, and yesterday about 500 settlers attempting to illegally expand the West Bank settlement of Efrat, seven miles south of Jerusalem, confronted police. A police spokesman said 38 settlers were arrested when they tried to block a main highway.
The religious ruling raised concern yesterday because the army is traditionally held in high esteem. Religious and political leaders usually try to avoid involving the army in controversies. Ultra-orthodox men are exempt from mandatory army service.
The Israeli military occasionally has confronted conscientious objectors, mostly leftists who refused to serve in the 1982 invasion of Lebanon or in the occupied territories.
But there have been few such objections on religious grounds. During the army's 1982 evacuation of the settlement of Yamit from an area of the Sinai desert being returned to Egypt, rabbis urged protesting settlers not to confront the soldiers.
"There's never been a situation where a group of significant rabbis has called for soldiers to disobey orders. It's very serious," said Gadi Wolfsfeld, author of the book "Political Protest in Israel."
"This is a real affront to the whole principle that the army is supposed to be the one place where political confrontation comes to an end."
"It's on the verge of calling for a rebellion against the government," he said. "The real question is how many soldiers would follow it."
Many rabbis have their own followers, and religious rulings by one rabbi are not always recognized by others. There are two "official" chief rabbis and dozens of other leading rabbis whose philosophies and interpretations differ dramatically.
One of the most radical, Rabbi Moshe Levinger, was sentenced Tuesday to seven months in jail for harassing Palestinians in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
One of the two chief rabbis, Yisrael Meir Lau, said yesterday that it is "inconceivable to disobey an order. One must prevent civil warfare. . . . It is out of the question for each soldier to decide for himself which order is legal and which is not."
Rabbi Meir Fendel, who signed the ruling yesterday, argued on Israel Radio that "following orders is not something that is sacrosanct. We don't want to ever come in confrontation with the government . . . but there is a time when the rabbis felt this had to be done."
Other religious and political figures were expected to add to the criticism of the ruling today.
Rafael Eitan, a former army chief of staff and now head of the right-wing Tsomet party, which opposes withdrawal from the West Bank, said the ruling was "a terrible decision. This will bring an end to our army. With such directives by rabbis, the army will not win the next war."