TEL AVIV // Religious groups are increasingly taking control over Israel's army, according to a group of reservist major generals.
The claim was published this week by Israeli media and ignited a fierce public debate about the growing religious control over the army.
It was also a rare public show of condemnation of the army by senior security establishment figures, typically known for their loyalty and discreetness.
The letter of protest appeared to feed into tensions in a country where a growing religious minority has been slowly bolstering its influence on key institutions, including the military.
The army has been becoming increasingly reliant on religious and settler recruits to join its combat units because the secular middle class has become less motivated to sign up, even though their members have formed the army's backbone since Israel's creation in 1948.
A study published last year by the military's Maarachot journal showed that about a third of the graduates of an officers' training course viewed themselves as religious, compared with about 12 per cent of the general population.
In Israel, military service is obligatory for most Jewish 18 year olds, with males serving for three years and women for two.
Statistics from the military show that about a third of all soldiers are female but they are excluded from about 10 per cent of all positions, such as infantry units.
In the letter, the 19 signatories - among them former army, air-force and navy commanders - criticised demands by religious soldiers and officers to separate female soldiers from their male counterparts due to religious sensitivities.
Several recent high-profile cases were cited, including a walkout by cadets who did not want to see women singing at a military event, and demands to hinder females from training male soldiers or from participating in army celebratory events with men.
The army created controversy and spurred some critics to attack it after it announced it would assign retired army rabbis to battalions along the northern frontier to advance religious values among the soldiers.
Traditionally, rabbis in the Israeli army were more focused on overseeing religious ceremonies and supervising that food in the kitchens conformed to Jewish dietary laws.
Ran Goren, one of the signatories and a former head of the military's human resources branch, told Israeli radio that female soldiers were increasingly being excluded from combat units that have a high proportion of religious soldiers.
"To avoid problems, male soldiers are preferred over female ones," he said.
The document, addressed to the defence minister, Ehud Barak, and military chief Benny Gantz, said the officials must "prevent harm being caused to women soldiers … so as to stop the rolling snowball, a snowball which is liable in the future to harm the security of the state of Israel and the basic values of Israeli society as a whole".
The generals called on Mr Barak and Mr Gantz to issue specific directives to military units to avoid imposing religious norms on male and female soldiers.
The Israeli army, in a bid to offset the falling number of secular men joining its ranks, has tried to persuade more ultra-Orthodox men to enlist by creating all-male units that would have little exposure to females.
Along with increasing numbers of ultra-Orthodox soldiers, the proportion of young settlers from the Israeli-occupied West Bank has also been also growing.
Analysts believe many of the settler soldiers were driven by a religious and nationalistic ideology that includes strengthening Jewish control over the Palestinian territories.
It has also been said that the segregation of women and men was not the only effect of the rising religious influence over the army.
The increasing share of settler conscripts has also been having a political impact, partly contributing to a reluctance of Israeli leaders to evacuate the West Bank since it would be more challenging to find soldiers willing to complete the task.
Religious figures have played down tensions between women and religious soldiers.
Avichai Ronsky, a former chief rabbi of the military, said in a radio interview on Monday that the officers who sent the letter "don't know the current military reality", which includes increasingly more religious officers. He added that religious soldiers and women "get along well" in the army.
The military claimed it does not monitor the religious leanings of soldiers. Its internet site claims it is committed to being "a leading organisation in society where women and men work as one" and to providing "equal opportunity" based on merit and talent.