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Israeli far-right leader gives talk to soldiers in occupied Hebron

Army denies officially inviting ultra-nationalist campaigner Baruch Marzel, but soldiers say such voices are becoming increasingly common
Israeli right-wing activist Baruch Marzel leaves the supreme court in Jerusalem in 2015 (AFP)

Senior Israeli army officials are facing criticism after they invited far-right leader Baruch Marzel to give a lecture in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank.

Marzel, the former right-hand man of ultra-nationalist ideologue Meir Kahane, was scheduled to give two speeches about the city's cultural heritage to Israeli soldiers.

Although the first speech to a battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade went ahead, the second was cancelled following an outcry from soldiers.

One soldier, speaking to Haaretz, complained that a religious and ultra-nationalist ideology was becoming increasingly common within the army.

"It started with lectures by rabbis in the reserves, and now we have come to study days with Baruch Marzel," the soldier said, speaking anonymously.

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"In the past it was still possible to object to lectures by rabbis; today the majority [of lectures] are religious and any attempt to object is much more difficult. Those who invite those lecturers are senior officers in the brigade and the battalion."

In a statement, however, the army said the meeting with Marzel "took place without planning and without permission.

"The incident was reported to the battalion commander, who refined the procedures on the subject to the battalion commanders," it said.

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The controversy comes as former allies of Marzel look set to take high-ranking positions in Israel's new government.

Itamar Ben-Gvir's Jewish Power party, as part of the Religious Zionism political alliance, is expected to play an influential role in the upcoming Israeli government.

Marzel was a founding member of Jewish Power, but was banned from running in the August 2019 election over racist statements.

On Wednesday, he said he would be launching a new far-right party, after criticising Ben-Gvir as too "ideologically flexible".

Ben-Gvir has asked to be appointed as the minister of public security, while his ally Bezalel Smotrich covets the role of defence minister. 

The prospect of both appointments has provoked alarm from a number of Israel's allies, including the United States.

The US State Department last week condemned as "abhorrent" a decision by Ben-Gvir to attend an event commemorating Kahane, an anti-Palestinian campaigner and advocate of theocracy.

Kahane was a hardline rabbi who founded the Kach party in 1971, which was designated a terror group by the US and banned in Israel. He was elected to the Knesset in 1984, where he publicly advocated for the mass expulsion of Palestinians. He was killed in New York in 1990. 

Ben-Gvir joined Kach as an activist at the age of 16, before it was proscribed. The ban came in 1994, after a Kach member killed 29 Palestinian worshippers and wounded dozens in the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron.

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