A swearing-in ceremony for a Haredi battalion in the army was called off at the last moment Thursday, as the army expressed fears that ultra-Orthodox extremists opposed to army service would try to disrupt it.
The move came a week after thousands of ultra-Orthodox in Jerusalem violently protested plans to revoke yeshiva students’ exemptions from military service, injuring 10 police officers, and on the same day that a government panel unveiled legislation to exempt just 1,800 ultra-Orthodox men per year from service.
The army said it had received threats that religious anti-army service zealots would show up at the swearing-in ceremony for the ultra-Orthodox Netzah Yehuda battalion at Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem, which sits near several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
To avoid a potentially nasty confrontation, army officials said they would hold smaller ceremonies at soldiers’ individual bases, which would be open to families but not the general public.
“We could invite the police and of course disperse [the protesters], but we don’t want to create a war of hate between brothers because of the swearing-in,” a commander in the brigade told the Ynet news website. “We’re also here for them, even if they don’t understand it, and we’d like to avoid unnecessary confrontations.”
Anti-military service activists in the ultra-Orthodox world have stepped up their fight in the last several days, as politicians and army brass hash out plans to ease members of the community into army or national service.
The Netzah Yehuda battalion was established over a decade ago to bring ultra-Orthodox into the military. Corps members maintain a higher level of religious observance along with regular combat service.
The ultra-Orthodox have traditionally enjoyed an exemption from mandatory army service under the guise of being yeshiva students, but last year the law allowing them to avoid service was declared unconstitutional.
Earlier in the day, the Peri Committee, tasked with establishing a framework for ultra-Orthodox conscription, submitted its recommendations to the Knesset, which included an option for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to defer service until they are 21, at which time they will be forced to choose whether to enlist in the IDF or register for national or civil service.
Those who defer their service will have to be registered at yeshivas whose student bodies are subject to regular government auditing. Yeshivas that receive state funding and register their students for service deferment will also be required to introduce vocational training into their curriculum.
The bill still allows for 1,800 top Torah scholars to be totally exempted from service per annum, far below the estimated 7,000-8,000 ultra-Orthodox 18-year-olds who do not currently register each year.
Also Thursday, a Haredi soldier filed a complaint with police over what he termed “incitement” by the newspaper Hapeles, which has taken a hard-line stance against drafting ultra-Orthodox. The paper is the mouthpiece of the non-Hassidic ultra-Orthodox community.
Last week, large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Israelis rallied outside the main army recruitment office in Jerusalem to protest government initiatives to draft yeshiva students into the army.
The gathering drew an estimated 30,000-40,000 people, organizers said.
Some demonstrators turned over garbage cans and threw stones and other objects at police and security forces, who formed a human barrier to protect the building. One policeman was moderately injured, and nine others lightly hurt. Three demonstrators were also lightly injured as security forces used crowd dispersal methods, including smoke grenades, to counter the violence.
Gavriel Fiske and Adiv Sterman contributed to this report.