By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's deputy military chief suggested in a Holocaust memorial speech that there were signs of Nazi-like behavior in Israeli society, drawing condemnation from two cabinet ministers on Thursday before he backtracked on the remarks.
Major-General Yair Golan's speech, at a ceremony on Wednesday, would have touched a nerve at any time in a nation that vehemently rejects accusations by its fiercest critics that its treatment of Palestinians is comparable with the oppression long suffered by Jews.
But this year, emotions have been heightened and divisions deepened by a debate among Israelis over whether a soldier was justified in shooting and killing a Palestinian assailant who was wounded and lying on the ground, in an incident in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron in March.
Wearing his red paratroop beret, Golan said at the gathering to honor the six million Jews killed by Nazi Germany that the annual remembrance day should also lead Israelis to deep soul-searching about "how we, here and now, treat the stranger".
"If there's something that frightens me about Holocaust remembrance it's the recognition of the revolting processes that occurred in Europe in general, and particularly in Germany, back then – 70, 80 and 90 years ago – and finding signs of them here among us today in 2016," he said.
Golan also made a clear reference to the Hebron shooting, over which the soldier involved is due to stand trial next week on manslaughter charges that carry a maximum 20-year prison term. He decried the "aberrant use of weapons" and said the military was committed to "investigate difficult issues impartially".
Two ultranationalist members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's cabinet quickly took the general to task, before a nationwide memorial siren brought Israel to a standstill for two minutes on Thursday.
"His remarks attest mainly to a lack of understanding, ignorance, and a cheapening of the Holocaust," Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party told Channel 10 TV. "On such a day, I wouldn't even want to quote what he said."
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the party's leader, said Golan must "rectify" his mistake before "God forbid, our troops are likened to Nazis, with a kosher stamp from on high".
Later, in a statement, which Bennett welcomed, the military tried to lay the controversy to rest.
"(Golan) clarified today that he had no intention whatsoever of comparing the Israel Defense Forces and the State of Israel to the horrors that occurred in Germany 70 years ago," it said. "This is an absurd and baseless comparison that he never would have made."
Golan is the second-highest ranking officer in the Israeli army, a position that in the past has launched its holders to become overall head of the Israel Defense Forces.
Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon issued a statement expressing his "complete faith" in Golan. "The role of every IDF commander ... does not end just with leading soldiers into battle, but also obligates him to set out a path and values for them, using both compass and conscience," he said.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)