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The chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces has in the past year been visiting prisoners associated with extreme right-wing groups, some of whom are serving jail sentences for planning or helping to carry out terrorist attacks against Arabs, Haaretz has learned.

Brig. Gen. Rabbi Avichai Ronski, who assumed his position in 2006, has met with the prisoners to teach them about Judaism. The IDF Spokesman's Office responded to a query about the visits by saying that the encounters were a private initiative of Ronski.

"The initiative did not involve a formal IDF visit and was not instigated by the IDF," the spokesperson said.

The Israel Prisons Service, when queried, responded: "We have received requests by the chief IDF rabbi to meet with prisoners, which we vetted and approved, in part."

The source added: "The chief rabbi conducted several visits in which he met with Jewish prisoners serving sentences for security-related offenses."

Ronski's request to visit a member of the so-called "Bat Ayin underground" - referring to an extremist group originating in a settlement in Gush Etzion in the West Bank - was denied because the prisoner in question was in solitary confinement.

The prisons service allows Jewish extremist inmates - who, in Ayalon Prison, are incarcerated in a separate wing and not with the general population - to meet regularly with rabbis.

The service helps to facilitate and supervise these visits.

Ronski began visiting prisoners in the Ayalon security wing for such prisoners even before his appointment to the post, and continued to visit them thereafter.

The Bat Ayin group was exposed in April 2002, when police arrested two of its members, Shlomo Dvir and Yarden Morag, as they were laying a large explosive device near a Palestinian school for girls in A-Tur in East Jerusalem.

Morag, Dvir and a third accomplice by the name of Ofer Gamliel - also from Bat Ayin - were convicted of attempting to perpetrate a terrorist attack. Morag and Gamliel were sentenced to 15 years in prison each; Dvir received 12 years.

Rabbinate foots the bill

Last week, Haaretz revealed that the Chief Military Rabbinate has recently expanded its educational activities in army combat units, and in doing so has entered areas previously served only by the Education Corps.

Apparently, many commanders accept offers of such programs since the rabbinate pays for them, while the units must foot the bill for events run by the Education Corps.

The Chief Military Rabbinate's behavior "harms the delicate fabric of relations between the nonreligious and religious in the IDF," a senior officer told Haaretz. "In a number of cases it is religious brainwashing and, indirectly, also political [brainwashing]."

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi ordered an investigation of the matter this week and requested that the "borders" between the rabbinate and Education Corps. be redrawn.

The Military Rabbinate has been conducting such programs for years, but has greatly stepped up its activities during the past year. Most of the controversial programs are organized by the Jewish Awareness Department of the rabbinate.

The programs - run in close coordination with the Elad right-wing, nonprofit organization, dedicated to expanding Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem - have expanded greatly under Ronski's command.