Former Israeli Chief Rabbi, Opponent of Land Transfers to Palestinians, Dies at 94

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Rabbi Avraham Shapira, an Israeli spiritual leader most famous for urging soldiers to disobey orders to evacuate the Gaza Strip, has died in Jerusalem. He was 94.

Shapira, a chief rabbi in Israel for 10 years beginning in 1983, spent much of his life fighting vigorously against territorial concessions to the Palestinians — emerging as one of the Jewish state's most divisive religious figures.

To his followers, however, Shapira was a sage. When he was taken to the hospital earlier in the week, thousands prayed for his well-being at Jerusalem's Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site.

Some 20,000 mourners gathered in Jerusalem on Friday to accompany Shapira's body to its final resting place, the Mount of Olives. Because the funeral took place during the joyous, weeklong Jewish festival of Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles, rabbis told mourners it was best to avoid crying.

Shapira helped to lead the religious movement that forms the backbone of Israel's settlement enterprise. In 2005, he called on observant soldiers to disobey orders to dismantle 21 Jewish settlements during Israel's withdrawal from Gaza that year.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert noted Shapira's stance on the withdrawal in a statement Friday.

"Even though I did not agree with the opinions of the rabbi and I opposed his call to disobey orders, that did not detract from his great love for the people of Israel, the Land of Israel and Israeli heritage," Olmert said.

Many Orthodox Jews oppose any withdrawal from the West Bank or Gaza, considering them sacred land promised to the Jewish people by God. Shapira's call helped foster fervent opposition to the pullout and fears of clashes between settlers and the security forces.

The "disengagement" from Gaza and four settlements in the northern West Bank was completed with no great violence or casualties in September 2005.

"Before the disengagement he was among those who gave the settlers the feeling that it would not go through, that it wouldn't happen if there was a struggle, that there would be some divine intervention," Yossi Beilin of the dovish Meretz Party told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. "What he did created a very serious crisis for an entire generation."

Shapira also opposed the first Israeli-Palestinian peace accords in 1993, saying Jewish law forbade Israel from transferring holy land to the Palestinians.

He was a top adjudicator on the Torah and a leader of his movement's Mercaz Harav religious seminary in Jerusalem.

"Rabbi Avraham Shapira was beholden to the Torah," Hanan Porat, a former lawmaker from the movement's National Religious Party, told Israel Radio.