JERUSALEM — A top rabbinic leader of the West Bank settler movement declared last week that the Israeli military is “permitted” under Jewish religious law to kill “ostensibly innocent” civilians in the course of warfare, and that feelings of guilt over such deaths reflect “the morality of unbelievers.”
Rabbi Dov Lior, chairman of the Council of Rabbis of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, issued the permission on May 18 as a formal ruling of halacha, or rabbinic law. “It is permissible for the Israel Defense Forces to attack in the course of warfare a civilian population that is ostensibly innocent of wrongdoing,” Lior wrote. “The law of our Torah is to have mercy upon and save our civilians and our soldiers, and this is the true morality of the Torah of Israel, and one should not feel guilt out of the morality of unbelievers.”
The statement prompted a storm of protests. Knesset member Ran Cohen of Meretz said Lior “defiles the meaning of being a rabbi and is sacrificing the IDF’s ethical military behavior on the altar of his extremism.” The Jerusalem office of the Anti-Defamation League said it was “shocked and outraged” by Lior’s remarks. The league urged him in a letter to “consider the impact” his words have “as a religious leader.”
The daily Ma’ariv quoted “close associates” of Lior as saying his ruling was issued at a public gathering at Jerusalem’s Mercaz Harav yeshiva marking the celebration of Jerusalem Day, and was not related to recent events in Gaza. Lior is chief rabbi of the West Bank Jewish township of Kiryat Arba.
Passions have been running high within the West Bank settler movement in opposition to Prime Minister Sharon’s declared intention to evacuate some settlements and withdraw Israeli troops from parts of the West Bank and Gaza, leading to an intensification of rhetoric and activism within the settler community. Settler activists led the successful campaign to defeat Sharon’s diplomatic initiative in a Likud party referendum early this month, prompting a wave of anti-settler statements in the major media.
Just a day before Lior’s ruling, on May 17, hundreds of settlers and their allies attacked soldiers and police who were attempting to dismantle the illegal settlement outpost of Mitzpeh Yitzhar, just south of Nablus. Fifteen members of the security forces were injured, including the deputy police commander of the West Bank district, who was hospitalized. Some 41 settlers were arrested.
In addition to the estimated dozen inhabitants of the outpost, activists came to the spot from Jerusalem and from other settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Several busloads were organized by a top settlement leader, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, who heads the Ateret Cohanim Yeshiva in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City.
Mitzpeh Yitzhar figured prominently on a list of illegal outposts that the Bush administration has urged Israel to dismantle. The Sharon government promised in an April letter to the White House that it would submit a list and timetable for dismantling outposts by May 14, but the deadline was not met, according to press reports.
In New York, the Anti-Defamation League issued a statement objecting to the settlers’ reported practice of calling soldiers “Nazis” during the course of the melee.