Religious war in Gaza? Israeli soldier says rabbis said ‘get rid of the gentiles’

Soldiers also testified about excessive force against Palestinians

McClatchy/Tribune News | Mar 21, 2009

By Cliff Churgin

JERUSALEM — Rabbis affiliated with the Israeli army urged troops heading into Gaza to reclaim what they said was God-given land and “get rid of the gentiles”—effectively turning the 22-day Israeli intervention into a religious war, according to the testimony of a soldier who fought in Gaza.

Literature passed out to soldiers by the army’s rabbinate “had a clear message — we are the people of Israel, we came by a miracle to the land of Israel, God returned us to the land, now we need to struggle to get rid of the gentiles that are interfering with our conquest of the land,” the soldier told a forum of Gaza veterans in February, weeks after the conflict ended.

A transcript of the testimony given Feb. 13 at an Israeli military academy at Oranim Academic College was obtained Friday by McClatchy Newspapers and also published in Haaretz, one of Israel’s leading dailies. The soldier, identified as Ram, a pseudonym to protect his identity, gave a scathing description of the atmosphere as the Israeli army went to war.

“The atmosphere in general [was] the lives of Palestinians, let’s say, are something very, very less important than the lives of our soldiers,” Ram said. The religious literature gave “the feeling of almost a religious mission.”

About 1,400 Palestinians were killed during the operation, more than half of them civilians, Palestinian human-rights groups say.

A soldier identified as Gilad said his battalion commander made clear that the army was going to use its overwhelming firepower as its protection in entering densely populated Gaza City.

“He made clear to everyone that one of the most important lessons and one of the big differences with the second Lebanon war [in 2006] is the way in which we, the army … went in with a lot of fire. The surprise wouldn’t be the time, or the way or the place, nothing but a lot of firepower.”

McClatchy reported that scores of Palestinians were treated at Gaza hospitals for burns that may have come from shells containing white phosphorus, which is illegal to use in heavily populated areas. The issue came up only briefly at the Oranim conference, when a sergeant in the paratroops, identified as Yossi, said, “There was a lot of use of white phosphorus.”

Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem thinks the public release of the testimony helped spur the investigation. “There have been many cases where we have asked the advocate general to look into cases, and they drag their feet until it gets into the media.”

Michaeli said the testimony showed the need for an independent investigation into Israel’s action in Gaza.

“The army and [Atty. Gen. Menachem] Mazuz has claimed all along that the internal investigations and debriefings are the correct way. This clearly demonstrates that the soldiers didn’t reveal what they did or that they didn’t consider it a problem,” Michaeli said.

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