In a letter to the Israeli defence minister, Shaul Mofaz, published on Tuesday, the rabbis said killing enemy civilians is "normal" during the time of war and that the Israeli occupation army should never hesitate to kill non-Jewish civilians in order to save Jewish lives.

"There is no war in the world in which it is possible to delineate entirely between the population and the enemy army, neither in the US war in Iraq, the Russian war in Chechnya, nor in Israel's war with its enemies," the rabbis said.

The rabbis quoted a Talmudic edict, or religious ruling, stating that "our lives come first".

"The Christian preaching of 'turning the other cheek' doesn't concern us, and we will not be impressed by those who prefer the lives of our enemies to our lives," they said.

Opposing branches

The letter was signed by a number of Israeli rabbis including Haim Druckman, a former Knesset member who heads a large religious youth movement known as the Bnei Akiva Society; Eliezer Melamed, head of a West Bank religious college; and Youval Sharlo, the head of another Talmudic college in Petah Tikva which combines Talmudic studies with active military service.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews rush to pray
at Tomb of the Patriarch, Hebron

It is worth noting that many rabbis, especially within Conservative and Reform Judaism, don't share the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox view of non-Jews.

But the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism, despite their numerical superiority, have very little influence in Israel and are generally mistreated by the powerful Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox branches, who view secular Jews as somehow less than real Jews.

Incidentally, a few months ago a prominent rabbi in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arbaa near Hebron issued an edict stating that non-Jewish civilians may be killed to save Jewish lives, soldiers and civilians alike.

The rabbi, Dov Lior, argued that non-Jewish lives had no sanctity, especially during the time of war.

Lior has publicly praised and eulogised Baruch Goldstein, an American Jewish settler who in 1994 mowed down 29 Arab worshippers who were praying at Hebron's Ibrahimi Mosque.

Calling Goldstein a "great saint", he said a "thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew's fingernail".

Talmudic maxim

Earlier this year, Lior enthusiastically supported the killing of Palestinian civilians in Rafah in southern Gaza, saying that "it is very clear in light of the Torah that Jewish lives are more important than non-Jewish lives".

"The Christian preaching of 'turning the other cheek' doesn't concern us, and we will not be impressed by those who prefer the lives of our enemies to our lives"

Prominent Israeli rabbis in letter to Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz

In formulating their theological positions, Lior and other like-minded rabbis rely on an old Talmudic maxim which states that it is a mitzvah (imperative religious duty) to kill enemy civilians in war time.

The same rabbis also often quote Torah verses in which God is shown instructing the ancient Israelites to annihilate the Canaanites in ancient Palestine.

Since the outbreak of al-Aqsa Intifada in September 2000, the Israeli army and paramilitary Jewish groups have killed as many as 3500 Palestinians, the bulk of them civilians, including more than 600 children and minors.

During the same period, Palestinian fighters have killed nearly a thousand Israeli soldiers, settlers and civilians.