Did the Israeli Army Wage a Jewish
Jihad in Gaza?
Religious Extremists' Rapid Rise
Through the Ranks
by Jonathan Cook
Extremist rabbis and their followers,
bent on waging holy war against the Palestinians, are taking over
the Israeli army by stealth, according to critics.
In a process one military historian has
termed the rapid "theologization" of the Israeli army,
there are now entire units of religious combat soldiers, many
of them based in West Bank settlements. They answer to hardline
rabbis who call for the establishment of a Greater Israel that
includes the occupied Palestinian territories.
Their influence in shaping the army's
goals and methods is starting to be felt, say observers, as more
and more graduates from officer courses are also drawn from Israel's
religious extremist population.
"We have reached the point where
a critical mass of religious soldiers is trying to negotiate with
the army about how and for what purpose military force is employed
on the battlefield," said Yigal Levy, a political sociologist
at the Open University who has written several books on the Israeli
The new atmosphere was evident in the
"excessive force" used in the recent Gaza operation,
Dr. Levy said. More than 1,300 Palestinians were killed, a majority
of them civilians, and thousands were injured as whole neighborhoods
of Gaza were leveled.
"When soldiers, including secular
ones, are imbued with theological ideas, it makes them less sensitive
to human rights or the suffering of the other side."
The greater role of extremist religious
groups in the army came to light last week when it emerged that
the army rabbinate had handed out a booklet to soldiers preparing
for the recent 22-day Gaza offensive.
Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group,
said the material contained messages "bordering on racist
incitement against the Palestinian people" and might have
encouraged soldiers to ignore international law.
The booklet quotes extensively from Shlomo
Aviner, a far-right rabbi who heads a religious seminary in the
Muslim quarter of East Jerusalem. He compares the Palestinians
to the Philistines, the Biblical enemy of the Jews.
He advises: "When you show mercy
to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers.
. . . This is a war on murderers." He also cites a Biblical
ban on "surrendering a single millimetre" of Greater
The booklet was approved by the army's
chief rabbi, Brig Gen Avichai Ronsky, who is reportedly determined
to improve the army's "combat values" after its failure
to crush Hizbollah in Lebanon in 2006.
Gen. Ronsky was appointed three years
ago in a move designed, according to the Israeli media, to placate
hardline religious elements within the army and the settler community.
Gen Ronsky, himself a settler in the West
Bank community of Itimar, near Nablus, is close to far-right groups.
According to reports, he pays regular visits to jailed members
of Jewish terror groups; he has offered his home to a settler
who is under house arrest for wounding Palestinians; and he has
introduced senior officers to a small group of extremist settlers
who live among more than 150,000 Palestinians in Hebron.
He has also radically overhauled the rabbinate,
which was originally founded to offer religious services and ensure
religious soldiers were able to observe the sabbath and eat kosher
meals in army canteens.
Over the past year the rabbinate has effectively
taken over the role of the army's education corps through its
Jewish Awareness Department, which co-ordinates its activities
with Elad, a settler organization that is active in East Jerusalem.
In October, the Haaretz newspaper quoted
an unnamed senior officer who accused the rabbinate of carrying
out the religious and political "brainwashing" of troops.
Dr Levy said the army rabbinate's power
was growing as the ranks of religious soldiers swelled.
Breaking the Silence, a project run by
soldiers seeking to expose the army's behavior against Palestinians,
said the booklet handed out to troops in Gaza had originated among
"The document has been around since
at least 2003," said Mikhael Manekin, 29, one of the group's
directors and himself religiously observant. "But what is
new is that the army has been effectively subcontracted to promote
the views of the extremist settlers to its soldiers."
The power of the religious right in the
army reflected wider social trends inside Israel, Dr Levy said.
He pointed out that the rural cooperatives known as kibbutzim
that were once home to Israel's secular middle classes and produced
the bulk of its officer corps had been on the wane since the early
"The vacuum left by their gradual
retreat from the army was filled by religious youngsters and by
the children of the settlements. They now dominate in many branches
of the army."
According to figures cited in the Israeli
media, more than one-third of all Israel's combat soldiers are
religious, as are more than 40 per cent of those graduating from
The army has encouraged this trend by
creating some two-dozen hesder yeshivas, seminaries in which youths
can combine Biblical studies with army service in separate religious
units. Many of the yeshivas are based in the West Bank, where
students are educated by the settlements' extremist rabbis.
Ehud Barak, the defense minister, has
rapidly expanded the program, approving four yeshivas, three based
in settlements, last summer. Another 10 are reportedly awaiting
Mr Manekin, however, warned against blaming
the violence inflicted on Gaza's civilians solely on the influence
of religious extremists.
"The army is still run by the secular
elites in Israel and they have always been reckless with regard
to the safety of civilians when they wage war. Jewish nationalism
that justifies Palestinian deaths is just as dangerous as religious
Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist
based in Nazareth, Israel. His latest books are Israel and the
Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the
Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's
Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles
by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.