Prominent Israeli rabbis are urging the defense minister to take a harder line against Palestinian militants, even it means killing innocent civilians, one of the rabbis said Tuesday.

Rabbi Haim Druckman (search), a former member of parliament, said he and 15 other rabbis sent Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (search) a letter saying the military should be permitted to attack militants — even those located near Palestinian civilians — if it helps save Israeli lives.

"Should the army fight the enemy, if Palestinian civilians will be killed, or should the army refrain from fighting, and thus endanger our civilians?" the letter read, according to Druckman.

"The rabbis quote the sage Rabbi Akiva as responding: 'Our lives come first,"' Druckman said, referring to an ancient Torah scholar.

A spokeswoman for Mofaz could not confirm that the letter had been received.

The rabbis represent the mainstream of Israeli Orthodox Jews (search), who support settlers in the West Bank and Gaza and believe the territories are part of Israel's biblical heritage.

In four years of Israeli-Palestinian violence, the Israeli military has frequently targeted Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, using snipers, tank shells, helicopter gunships and in several cases, F-16 fighter jets.

While scores of civilians have been killed in the incidents, the military says it makes every effort to spare civilian lives.

Druckman said the rabbis sent the letter several weeks ago because the military's policy was leading to unnecessary deaths among Israeli soldiers and civilians.

"The terrorists frequently hide among civilians," he said. "As a result Israeli soldiers and Israeli children are dying in large numbers."

One part of the letter compared Israel's confrontation with Palestinian militants to other conflicts around the world, Druckman said.

"There is no war in the world in which it is possible to delineate entirely between the population and the ÛenemyÝ army, neither in the U.S. war in Iraq, the Russian war in Chechnya, nor in Israel's wars with its enemies," he quoted the letter as saying.

Since the outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence in September 2000, almost 1,000 Israelis and more than 3,000 Palestinian have been killed.