Israelis told to fight 'holy war' in Gaza

Many Israeli troops had the sense of fighting a "religious war" against Gentiles during the 22-day offensive in Gaza, according to a soldier who has highlighted the martial role of military rabbis during the operation.

The soldier testified that the "clear" message of literature distributed to troops by the rabbinate was: "We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the Gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land."

The claim comes in the detailed transcript of a post-war discussion by soldiers, publication of which has triggered a military police inquiry into allegations about the use of lethal firepower against unarmed civilians.

The investigation was ordered by the military's advocate general Avichai Mandleblit on Thursday after the liberal daily newspaper Haaretz published extracts from the transcript describing incidents in which Palestinian civilians were killed and property wantonly damaged.

In the fuller version of the transcript published yesterday, the soldier, a unit commander from the Givati brigade, says: "This was the main message and the whole sense many soldiers had in this operation was of a religious war." He recalled that his own sergeant was from a hesder yeshiva, a college combining religious study and military service, who led the whole platoon in prayer before going into battle. The commander added that he had sought to talk to the men about Palestinian politics and society and, "about how not everyone in Gaza is Hamas and not every inhabitant wants to vanquish us".

After the offensive, Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group called for the dismissal of the military's head chaplain, Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, a brigadier general. It said that he had distributed to troops a booklet saying that it was "terribly immoral" to show mercy to a "cruel enemy" and that the soldiers were fighting "murderers".

The longer transcript conveys a fuller sense of the debate involving graduates from the Yitzhak Rabin military preparatory course. At one point Danny Zamir, the head of the course, says he would have questioned the killing of 180 traffic policemen during bombing on the first day of the operation. One pilot replies: "Tactically speaking you call them police. In any case they are armed and belong to Hamas ... during better times they take Fatah people and throw them off the roofs and see what happens."

The latest casualty figures published by the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights list the names of 1,434 dead of whom they say 926 were civilians, 236 fighters and 255 police officers.

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