Israeli Soldier Says Military Rabbis Framed Gaza Mission as Religious

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By Howard Schneider
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 21, 2009

JERUSALEM, March 20 -- A soldier involved in Israel's recent military offensive in the Gaza Strip said in published reports Friday that the military's rabbinical staff distributed material characterizing the operation as a religious mission to "get rid of the gentiles who disturb us from conquering the holy land."

In the second day of published accounts from soldiers critical of the conduct of the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza, the daily Maariv ran excerpts of an interview with a squad commander in Israel's Givati Brigade. He was identified only by his first name, given as Rahm.

The daily quoted him as saying that the Gaza operation from the beginning had "the feeling of almost a religious mission."

While military rabbis provided routine services -- such as distributing books of psalms and leading prayers at the start of the operation -- some religious materials veered in a political direction, he said.

"The military rabbinate brought many magazines and articles with a very clear message: 'We are the Jewish people, a miracle brought us to the land of Israel, God returned us to the land, and now we have to struggle so as to get rid of the gentiles who disturb us from conquering the holy land.' All the feeling throughout all this operation of many of the soldiers was of a war of religions," he said. "As a commander, I tried to explain that the war is not a war of Kiddush Hashem [the sanctification of God's name, including through martyrdom] but over the stopping of the launching of the Qassam rockets."

The rockets are one of several types that Hamas and other Islamist groups fire from Gaza into Israel. Palestinian health officials said about 1,400 Palestinians died in the three weeks of fighting in December and January, including what United Nations officials said were hundreds of civilians. Thirteen Israelis died, including three civilians.

The publication of the soldiers' accounts has elevated a set of issues that Palestinian organizations and human rights groups have raised since early in the Gaza operation. On Thursday, the IDF's chief lawyer opened an investigation following the publication of reports in which soldiers spoke of unnecessary civilian deaths and needless property destruction.

The soldiers' accounts were elicited by the head of a training school for future military recruits. At a recent gathering, graduates of the school described how the realities of military life clashed with the values taught in the school's curriculum.

The school is named in honor Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli leader who signed the 1993 Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians and who was assassinated by an Israeli who opposed the agreements. The school is secular in nature and its graduates would likely be sensitive to the intrusion of religious politics into the conduct of a military operation, said retired Brig. Gen. Meir Elran, a security analyst with the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

Given that one of Israel's chief struggles is against organizations, such as Hamas, that entwine religion and violence, the presence of similar material among Israeli soldiers is disturbing, Elran said.

"You cannot but think about the other side, too," said Elran, who noted that the traditional role for military rabbis was to ensure that kitchens were kosher and to conduct services as needed. Although ultra-Orthodox Jews are exempt from military service on religious grounds, Elran said the number of religious Jews in the military has been increasing.

Still, "when you talk about the military in a country where you have compulsory service, I find it a bit odd that military rabbis would go further than just giving religious services to those who want it or need it," he said.

The issue surfaced publicly shortly after the Gaza operation, known as Operation Cast Lead. An Israeli human rights group publicized material that encouraged soldiers to show no mercy to their enemies and that said there was a biblical ban on surrendering Israeli territory to non-Jews.

The material, according to excerpts published at the time in the daily Haaretz, cut to the core of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, comparing the Palestinians to Old Testament invaders who now "claim they deserve a state here."

IDF spokesman Elie Isaacson said that there was an investigation at the time and that a member of the rabbinical staff was reprimanded for distributing unauthorized material. Isaacson said it was considered an isolated incident.

"If you are religious, the army gives you the right to practice, but the mixing of politics and religion -- it is a big taboo," he said. The military rabbis "don't make policy. They don't make decisions."


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