JERUSALEM, March 20 (Reuters) - Rabbis in the Israeli army told battlefield troops in January's Gaza offensive that they were fighting a "religious war" against gentiles, according to one army commander's account published on 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 Defence 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.
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".
It began when a devout sergeant in his unit "assembled the whole platoon and led the prayer for those going into battle", he said. "Also when we were inside they sent in those booklets full of Psalms, a ton of Psalms. I think the house I was in for a week, we could have filled a room with the Psalms they sent."
The officer felt there was a "huge gap between what the Education Corps sent out and what the IDF rabbinate sent out".
The corps distributed pamphlets about the history of Israel's fighting in Gaza from 1948 to the present, he said.
But the rabbinate's message imparted to many soldiers the sense that "this operation was a religious war".
A squad commander from Ram's Givat Brigade, named as Aviv, recounted his misgivings about orders to break down doors with armoured vehicles and shoot anyone inside, floor by floor. In the event, the order was amended to include "operating megaphones" so advancing troops could tell people they had five minutes to get out or be killed.
Aviv said "there was a very annoying moment" when he briefed his men and one challenged that order, saying: "Yeah? Anyone who is in there is a terrorist, that's a known fact..."
"And then his buddies join in: 'We need to murder any person who's in there, yeah, any person who's in Gaza is a terrorist' and all the other things that they stuff our heads with, in the media," Aviv was quoted as saying.
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.
On Thursday, an Israeli think-tank, the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism, challenged the conclusion that close to 1,000 Gaza civilians were killed. It said a statistical analysis of PCHR's list of civilian casualties showed a disproportionate number of young men of fighting age.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak responded to the IDF revelations on 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.
According to a soldier named as Moshe, investigations into battlefield conduct are not taken seriously. He said the attitude could be summed up as:
"It isn't pleasant to say so, but no one cares at all. We aren't investigating this. This is what happens during fighting..."
(Writing by Douglas Hamilton; editing by Samia Nakhoul)
(For blogs and links on Israeli politics and other Israeli and Palestinian news, go to blogs.reuters.com/axismundi)