JERUSALEM (AP)--Israel's much-criticized practice of killing Palestinian militants has the full backing of Jewish religious law, according to a statement Thursday from Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau.

The policy has been condemned by the U.S. State Department and human rights groups. The most recent case was Wednesday, when Israeli forces killed Hamas activist Saleh Darwazeh by firing five anti-tank missiles at his car near Nablus in the West Bank.

Lau has been lecturing around the country in recent days, explaining the religious justification for defensive actions taken by Israel's government, according to the statement. It uses the terms ''foiling'' and ''interception'' in reference to Israeli military measures. Lau's spokesman, Yitzhak Rath, said ''those are just synonyms for targeted killing.''

In 10 months of fighting, 132 people have been killed on the Israeli side, many of them civilians who died in Palestinian bombing and shooting attacks. During the same period, 533 people have been killed on the Palestinian side.

Quoting ancient sages and Biblical passages, Lau explained that Israel is now fighting a ''war of commandment,'' mandated by God. He said that those engaged in the war are exempt from other commandments, a highly unusual ruling.

Lau referred to an often-quoted Jewish precept, ''He who comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first.'' He added, ''This applies only to murderers and those who send them, not to innocent civilians.''

While justifying whatever action the government adopts in its struggle against the Palestinians, Lau stated that private citizens must not take up arms. Last week three Palestinians, including a baby, were shot and killed in the West Bank, apparently by Israelis. Some suspect that it was retaliation by Jewish settlers for Palestinian ambushes.

Since May, Israel has been following a policy it calls ''restraint,'' avoiding large-scale military operations and air strikes against Palestinian targets, but carrying out smaller operations, like targeted killing of militants. Palestinians say more than 40 people have been killed in such Israeli operations.

Ran Cohen, an ex-army colonel and a leader of the secular Meretz party, said Lau went too far in his ruling. Cohen said stopping terror attacks and intercepting militants is legitimate, but ''targeted killing is a crime.''

Cohen praised Lau for telling civilians not to attack Palestinians, but added, ''I regret the fact that he did not have enough courage to decide what the limits of government policy are.''

Lau said that according to a passage in the Talmud, a sacred collection of ancient commentaries on the Bible, if enemies approach a border village even just to steal, an army must be mobilized against them, even on the Jewish Sabbath. ''All the more so when it is a matter of life and death,'' Lau concluded.

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