Debate in Israel about how to tackle the wave of violence deepened this weekend after Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef said it was a “mitzvah” to kill terrorists.

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef

Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef

In a controversial edict, Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef told students that it was a religious imperative to kill Palestinians armed with knives, and urged soldiers not to worry about the courts or the army on the matter.

Yosef, who was speaking during his weekly Torah lesson on Saturday night at the Yazdi Synagogue in Jerusalem, said: “If someone comes to kill you, you kill him first… It deters them.”

Last month, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisonkot attacked “slogans like ‘If someone comes to kill you, you kill him first’… I don’t want a soldier to empty a magazine on a girl with scissors”.

Addressing concerns about rules of law and engagement, Yosef said: “Don’t start being afraid with all kinds… that they’ll make about him later in the High Court of Justice, or that some chief of staff will come and say something different.”

The religious leader added: “The moment a terrorist knows that if he comes with a knife he won’t return alive, that will deter them. That’s why it’s a mitzvah to kill him.”

He later ran through the possibility of an unarmed person suspected of being a terrorist is captured on Shabbat, then that person could be killed after Shabbat.

“If some terrorist comes to me now, and I know he’s a terrorist, and we caught him. He doesn’t have a knife in his hand, he doesn’t have anything. And I know, Elijah the Prophet will come to me and tell me that he’s from Amalek. Is it permitted to kill him on Shabbat? No. But Elijah the Prophet says that it’s Amalek. Put him in prison, after Shabbat say a blessing and kill him.”

Ofer Shelah MK said that rabbis should not replace commanders, adding: “At the age when young Israelis risk their lives, [Yosef] was editing his father’s books, yet he purports to decide issues of war ethics and even challenges the chief of staff.”

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said: “The instructions are clear: anyone who pulls out a knife or a screwdriver must be shot dead… If an attack has begun, we must shoot to kill.”

Ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party member Bezalel Smotrich defended Yosef’s “important moral principle” and called his detractors “the sanctimonious crowd”. He added: “Let any terrorist who raises a hand at a Jew know that his blood is on his own head.”