JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Rabbis in the Israeli army told battlefield troops in January's Gaza offensive they were fighting a "religious war" against gentiles, according to one army commander's account published Friday.
"Their message was very clear: 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," he said.
The account by Ram, a pseudonym to shield the soldier's identity, was published by the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper in the second day of revelations that have rocked the Israeli military. (www.haaretz.com "Shooting and Crying, 2009").
They were leaked from a Feb 13 meeting of armed forces members to share their Gaza experiences.
Some veterans, alumni of an Israel Defense Force (IDF) military academy, told of the killing of civilians and their impression that deep contempt for Palestinians pervaded the ranks of the Israeli forces.
Haaretz and the daily Maariv, which also published the accounts, quoted over half a dozen soldiers and airmen. The institution's director, Danny Zamir, confirmed that Thursday's published accounts were authentic.
In longer excerpts in its Friday "Week's End" edition, the daily quoted 'Ram' as saying his impression of the 22-day operation was "the feeling of an almost religious mission."
There was a "huge gap between what the Education Corps sent out and what the IDF rabbinate sent out," he said. The corps's pamphlets told the history of Israel's fighting in Gaza from 1948 to the present, but the rabbinate's message imparted the sense that "this operation was a religious war."
The rabbinate of the IDF provides religious services, including overseeing preparation of kosher food, providing prayerbooks and prayer sessions and religious counseling to any soldier wants to participate. Involvement is not obligatory.
RELIGION IN THE MILITARY
The Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR) has put the Palestinian death toll during the war at 1,417 -- 926 civilians, 236 fighters and 255 police officers. Israeli officials have disputed those figures. Thirteen Israelis were killed.
Israel faced global criticism over its assaults in densely populated areas of Gaza in the campaign, launched with the declared aim of ending rocket attacks from Hamas and other Islamist militant groups in Gaza aimed at its southern towns.
Hamas clerics have often called for "Zionist" blood to be spilled. The Islamists carried out dozens of suicide bombings in Israel before and during a Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000, blowing up buses and cafes.
The Jewish state tries to balance the needs of its non-observant majority with religious tradition. While the military does not provide data on the disposition of personnel, observers report a disproportionately high number of soldiers and officers wearing skullcaps -- a symbol of Jewish faith.
One week after the Gaza offensive ended on January18 Israeli human rights group Yesh Din called on Defense Minister Ehud Barak to dismiss the chief chaplain, Rabbi Avichai Rontzki, who holds the rank of brigadier general.
It said he had distributed a booklet to soldiers fighting in the Gaza conflict quoting an ultra-nationalist Israeli rabbi as saying that showing mercy toward a "cruel enemy" was "terribly immoral" and advising soldiers they were fighting "murderers."
Barak responded to the IDF revelations Thursday by repeating Israel's description of its armed forces as the most moral in the world. The IDF said its judge advocate-general had ordered an investigation.
(Additional reporting by Dan Williams)
(Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Philippa Fletcher)