On Sunday, a huge number of ultra-Orthodox Israelis rallied against the proposed draft law at the entrance to Jerusalem. Hundreds of thousands — organizers said half a million while police put the number at some 300,000 — attended the protest, which sealed off the entrance to the capital for hours. Unlike previous protests, the event was largely peaceful, without clashes between demonstrators and police.
Hundreds of thousands reported protesting in capital
Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox have gathered at the entrance to Jerusalem to protest a draft law moving through the Knesset which would impose criminal sanctions on Haredi draft dodgers.
Carrying placards calling to rise up for the “Torah of Moshe” and declaring they would never submit to a Knesset bill that would dramatically increase IDF service among the ultra-Orthodox communities, protesters have created a sea of black and white near the central bus station in the capital.
Many are wearing sackcloth, symbolizing mourning for the creation of the law, following decades during which the ultra-Orthodox were able to claim an exemption from army service.
Some 3,500 police and other personnel were securing the massive demonstration, which is expected to draw upwards of half a million people, making it one of the largest in the country’s history.
Organizers billed the event as a “million-man protest” and a prayer rally.
The Magen David Adom rescue service said it had upped its readiness level to prepare for the crush of demonstrators at the event near the entrance to the capital.
The demonstration is expected to bring much of the capital to a standstill.
By 3 p.m. traffic issues had rippled outside the capital, with heavy congestion reported on area highways.
Police say the demonstration will snarl traffic, close roads and shut down public transportation around the entrance to the city and the Knesset.
Route 1, the main road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, closed after 2 p.m. Sunday from the Latrun area to the capital, and the Jerusalem Central Bus Station also shut down in the afternoon, along with much public transportation in the city.
“We have no intention of the large demonstration turning into a riot,” Jerusalem District police chief Yossi Pariente told Ynet. “We have coordinated with the protesters that there won’t be riots and we hope they stand by it.”
In the past, ultra-Orthodox protests over the draft issue have turned violent. Earlier this month in Ashdod, a protest that drew several hundred led to over a dozen arrests for rioting.
A major proponent of the Haredi draft, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, came out against the demonstration on Saturday night, asserting that “military service is not a ‘decree’” – as some ultra-Orthodox leaders have been referring to it – “but rather a big mitzvah.”
The latest version of the draft bill has faced scathing criticism from ultra-Orthodox leaders over its inclusion of individual criminal sanctions against draft-dodgers that would kick in if the community as a whole failed to meet rising quotas for the draft. But it has also faced criticism from proponents of an equal draft for delaying such criminal sanctions until mid-2017, after the next election.
Police, media differ over protest size
Media reports say hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox have massed already in the capital to protest the draft law, though official police figures put the number at “tens of thousands.”
Entrance to capital blocked by tens of thousands demonstrating. Police units in and around area. pic.twitter.com/MYIqFm8QId
— Micky Rosenfeld (@MickyRosenfeld) March 2, 2014
‘A prayer service to remember until the Messiah’
The protest is taking place on Rosh Hodesh, the New Moon holiday, of Adar Bet, normally a time of joy on the Jewish calendar, which culminates in the carnival-like Purim holiday in two weeks.
However the rally has taken on a somber tone, with protesters reciting solemn prayers from Psalms and elsewhere.
As an afternoon prayer service began, the man leading the mass prayer service assured the thousands in attendance that they would “remember this service until the coming of the Messiah.”
The ground at the protest is littered with Purim-themed flyers equating Queen Esther’s plight with that of the ultra-Orthodox community in Israel today.
The Purim story tells of a successful attempt by Persia’s Jews, led by Esther and her kinsman Mordechai, to thwart a genocidal decree against them.
A young man from the Yad Aharon yeshiva said, “Torah built this country, and it must continue.”
Twelve treated for light injuries
A dozen protesters receive medical treatment at the rally for minor injuries, including fatigue, bruises, and difficulty breathing due to the high levels of dust and pollution in the Jerusalem air today.
Knesset speaker warns of ‘civil war’
Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein expresses concern that the conscription bill will cause divisiveness, or even a “civil war.”
“The present situation is that there is record tension between the segments of society and I am concerned for the unity of the nation,” Edelstein tells officials in the Knesset.
“The purpose of the bill is to bring — rightfully — equality, but if the result is a civil war, we will not achieve anything. I hope the demonstrating public will keep the peace and that the rally will end without casualties and without incitement.”
Tire fires set in capital
Firefighters say they have put out two tire fires in Jerusalem, likely set by anti-IDF draft protesters.
One tire fire was set up on Herzl Boulevard, a major artery between the entrance of the city and its southern neighborhoods, and another fire was at the Arazim tunnels road, which connects the Ramot neighborhood to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, Ynet reported.
Tire fires are often used in protests in Israel to block roads, though many roads in the area are already closed off.
Police and other officers are on high alert for breakouts of violence or other rioting during the massive protest.
Tally rises to half a million; 32 injured
Protest coordinators say there are presently 500,000 ultra-Orthodox demonstrators.
Thirty-two protesters are lightly injured and receive medical treatment on the scene.
Police estimates stand at 300,000
Police say that contrary to organizers’ assessments, some 300,000 protesters are at the rally.
MK Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party tells Walla News that there are 600,000 present, and that the effort is an “extraordinary success.”
“We are sad that it has come to this. I hope that there will be no provocation on the sidelines and that it remains a prayer [rally]. The Torah saves the Jewish people and will continue to protect the Jewish nation, and we here will continue to learn Torah,” he says.
Sounds of rally echo across Jerusalem
The rally, which at 400,000-strong would make it one of the largest in the country’s history, can be heard clear on the other side of the city.
Whistles, yells and voices of loudspeakers are heard clearly in the German Colony neighborhood of the capital, nearly four kilometers away.
The last rally of this magnitude occurred in Tel Aviv, during the summer of 2011’s tent protests against the high cost of living. Organizers said some 300,000 people marched in the White City on September 3 of that year, joining another 150,000 around the country.
The largest gathering in the country’s history occurred just a few kilometers from today’s protest, as some 850,000 people, according to some estimates, attended the funeral of Shas leader Ovadia Yosef on October 7, 2013.
Hiddush NGO pan draft bill, criminal sanctions
Hiddush, a nonprofit advocating greater separation of religion and state, releases a statement criticizing the proposed enlistment legislation that includes criminal sanctions for draft evaders.
“The success of the protest is probably the most important achievement that can be credited to Yesh Atid’s failed bill, under which thousands of yeshiva students would be arrested. This bill, which will clearly not bring about the conscription of even one Haredi yeshiva student, marks record efficiency in at least one area: in increasing Haredi outrage,” Hiddush writes.
Police disperse crowds as protest comes to close
After two hours of reciting Psalms, singing, and dancing, the ultra-Orthodox rally against the conscription bill concludes with no incidents of violence or clashes with police.
Some 51 protesters are injured lightly in the protest and receive medical treatment on the scene, while four are evacuated to the Hadassah Ein Kerem and Shaare Zedek hospitals.
Police maintain that 300,000 participated in the demonstration, while the Haredi organizers say over 500,000 were present.
Route 1 remains closed to private vehicles, and the Central Bus Station will reopen at 8 p.m. No buses are running from the capital, except for direct routes to Tel Aviv which will depart from Har Hotzvim.
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