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Netanyahu's references to violent biblical passages raise alarm among critics

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The October 7 attack by Hamas on Israel has many questioning the leadership of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Over the weekend, Israeli protesters gathered outside his home demanding he resign.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

FADEL: They're asking how this government didn't know what was going on in the blockaded Palestinian enclave of Gaza where Hamas rules and Israel and Egypt control the borders. Why it took the military hours to rescue civilians as gunmen overran their towns, killing more than 1,400 people, according to the Israeli government, and taking more than 240 hostages. That's the backdrop of Israel's response in Gaza, where Palestinian health officials say Israeli bombardments and ground operations have killed upward of 10,000 people and induced a man-made humanitarian crisis. Netanyahu has dismissed calls for a pause in hostilities from much of the international community unless it means the unconditional return of the captives.

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PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Israel will not agree to a cessation of hostilities with Hamas after the horrific attacks of October 7. Calls for a ceasefire are calls for Israel to surrender to Hamas.

FADEL: And his public statements have raised alarm among some critics. He's twice referenced violent passages in the Bible to justify Israel's devastating response, including this one.

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NETANYAHU: (Through interpreter) You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible.

FADEL: Speaking Hebrew, he's comparing Hamas to the nation of Amalek in a passage from the Book of Samuel. That passage says to smite the Amalekites after the nation launched a vicious surprise attack on the Jewish people. Motti Inbari is a professor of religion at the University of North Carolina, Pembroke.

MOTTI INBARI: The biblical commandment is to completely destroy all of Amalek. And when I'm talking about completely destroy, we're talking about killing each and every one of them - including babies, including their property, including the animals - everything.

FADEL: Already, Palestinians in Gaza and human rights groups accuse Israel of indiscriminate attacks that caused mass civilian casualties. Israel's army maintains it does not deliberately target civilians, that the deaths are a byproduct of Hamas entrenched in densely packed areas inside the Gaza Strip. Inbari says his concern stems from the symbolism Netanyahu projects with the biblical metaphors he's used.

INBARI: Well, you know, he's playing with words. He can always say that he didn't mean it like that. But it might be that people who are hearing him, you know, soldiers on the ground field that are coming from Orthodox background - and there are many soldiers in the ground field that are coming from Orthodox background. When they hear him talking about remembering Amalek, it sets for them something that may be understood differently, you know, by you and me. So there might be that there will be soldiers and commanders or people on the ground that will understand the message that is coming from above from the leadership of the state as allowing them to do something similar to what Hamas has done to Israel.

FADEL: Now, Netanyahu has quoted the Bible before as prime minister. But typically, Inbari says, Netanyahu is appealing to an international audience and citing the Jews biblical right to the land. Quoting these particular passages marks a shift, Inbari says.

INBARI: Ever since this war began, he is always quoting the Bible and in - his last statements were the strongest so far in the way he quoted the Bible. And I was intrigued, and I'm a little bit concerned about this, because typically when Hamas and Hezbollah have used the language of holy wars in the way in which they are, you know, described their fight with Israel, Israel never responded in such language because, first of all, Israel is a secular state. It's not a religious state, it's not a fundamentalist state. But secondly, when you are talking in the language of holy wars, there can be no resolution that includes a compromise to that conflict.

You are fighting in the name of God. And when you are fighting in the name of God, it is a total war until a total victory of the God of Israel over the God of the enemy, even though it's the same God in that context. But it is always, like, it's a total and complete war with no way of compromising. It's very unusual, yeah. And Netanyahu always tried to distance himself from his Orthodox partners. He always tried to show himself as a person who is a secular Jew. Although he has partners who are Orthodox, he's different from them. And he always tried to emphasize it to the general audience. Now he's blurring those lines, and you have to understand, Netanyahu is a very calculated person. So if he's using it, it's probably - there's a good reason for that. It's not a coincidence.

FADEL: Why do you think he's using it?

INBARI: His ratings are very low. He needs to reach back to his base and bring back his ratings. Now, the public polls that are conducted in Israel are terrible for Netanyahu right now.

FADEL: It's a really difficult place - right? - a massacre in Southern Israel...

INBARI: Yes.

FADEL: ...That left over 1,400 people killed. Over 200 hostages in Gaza. The images coming out of Gaza with so many civilians killed, thousands among them children. I mean, when you talk about this war and this development as disturbing, what is it?

INBARI: You don't want to turn Israel into a war with Islam, that Judaism against Islam, because Israel - well, just a few weeks ago, we were talking about peace with Saudi Arabia. So if Judaism is in war with Islam, Israel won't be able to have peace with Saudi Arabia and won't be able to have peace with Egypt and Jordan and other states. So it's not strategically smart to invoke this metaphor that Judaism is at war with Islam. Israel is at war with a segment of the Palestinian people. It's called Hamas. This is how we need to treat it, in my opinion.

FADEL: Motti Inbari, professor of philosophy and religion at the University of North Carolina, Pembroke. Thank you so much for your time and your insights.

INBARI: Thank you very much.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

In a statement to NPR, the Prime Minister's office says, quote, "Israel's defined war mission is to destroy Hamas," unquote. It goes on to say "the proportional response to the October 7 massacre carried out by Hamas is the destruction of Hamas. Anything less will not prevent future Hamas attacks," unquote. The White House says President Biden raised the need for humanitarian pauses in a phone call yesterday with Netanyahu, but that no agreement was reached. Later, in an interview with ABC News, Netanyahu suggested he might be open to what he described as tactical little pauses for an hour here or there to allow aid into or hostages out of Gaza.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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