Ultra-Orthodox draft protesters block entrance to Jerusalem for three hours

Hundreds demonstrate, causing major traffic jams, in first show of strength since death of leader Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach

Ultra orthodox Jewish men protest against the army draft, at the entrance to Jerusalem on March 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ultra orthodox Jewish men protest against the army draft, at the entrance to Jerusalem on March 8, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Hundreds of members of a radical ultra-Orthodox sect crowded into the streets of Jerusalem on Thursday, blocking off major roads at the entrance to the city, in their first anti-IDF draft demonstration since the death two weeks ago of their leader Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach.

The Chords Bridge entrance to the capital was blocked for three hours during afternoon rush hour, snarling traffic at the crucial entrance to the capital, police said, requesting drivers use alternate routes.

Police initially allowed the protesters to demonstrate peacefully but after several hours used mounted police and water cannons to disperse them after they refused to leave.

Also, the Ynet news site said some soldiers passing by confronted the protesters and broke their signs before police intervened.

The demonstration followed the arrest earlier this week of a young member of the radical Jerusalem Faction, who followed the orders of the sect’s leadership and refused to sign a letter requesting a deferral of service, making him a draft dodger in the eyes of Israeli authorities.

Rabbi Shmuel Auerbach speaks with his students in Ramat Beit Shemesh on June 2, 2016. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

While ultra-Orthodox Israelis are exempted from enlistment, they are required to report to enlistment offices in order to sign a deferral of service, which Jerusalem Faction rabbinic leaders order their students not to do.

Hadashot News reported that one of the goals of Thursday’s protest was to show that the movement will not be affected by the loss of its leader.

Auerbach passed away after suffering a heart attack on February 24. The 86-year-old was said to have had some 25,000 followers.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription into the IDF has sparked the possibility of elections in recent weeks.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was not seeking early elections but that a fresh vote would be held if coalition parties couldn’t agree on legislation exempting ultra-Orthodox students from military service.

Laying out his conditions for avoiding elections, Netanyahu said any bill on ultra-Orthodox enlistment must be backed by the entire coalition and provide a long-term solution. But he also said he was demanding that coalition members agree to remain in the government until the end of its term.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri (C), Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (L) and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni attend the third Shas conference in Jerusalem on February 16, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The draft legislation is backed by the United Torah Judaism party, which has threatened to veto the 2019 state budget if its bill isn’t passed. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has threatened in response to pull his Kulanu party out of the government if the budget isn’t passed by next week, while Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party has said it won’t budge in its opposition to the bill.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who leads the UTJ party, denied on Thursday reports of a compromise proposal to resolve the impasse.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said Wednesday that he believed it was possible to resolve the coalition crisis, adding that Israelis “won’t forgive” the government if elections are held early.

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