'We'd rather die than be drafted'

Ultra-Orthodox mount ‘day of rage’ against army draft

Police arrest 40 people in Jerusalem for blocking roads, failing to obey orders

An ultra-Orthodox Jew holds a sign during a protest in Jerusalem against the conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews to the IDF on October 19, 2017. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)
An ultra-Orthodox Jew holds a sign during a protest in Jerusalem against the conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews to the IDF on October 19, 2017. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox protesters launched major protests against the arrest of draft-dodging community members Thursday, capping a week of road-blocking actions and scuffles with the police.

Dozens of ultra-Orthodox protesters on Thursday afternoon blocked Jerusalem’s Shabbat Square, a key intersection leading to several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in the capital. Police said protesters there burned trash and pushed it into the street.

A second protest was held at the corner of Jaffa and Sarei Yisrael streets near the city’s central bus station, with demonstrators blocking the light rail.

For a short period, key roads at the entrance to Jerusalem were blocked.

Protesters chanted “we’d rather die than be drafted” at the demonstrations.

Police said 40 people were arrested during the protests for blocking roads and the light rail, as well as for failing to obey police orders.

During the morning, demonstrators blocked Route 443 near the Shilat Junction close to Modiin and were then removed by police.

Further demonstrations were held in other locations including Bnei Brak, Ashdod and Beit Shemesh, as part of a so-called “day of rage.”

At same demonstrations, secular Israelis got out of their cars to try to haul the protesters out of the way. “These people are scum,” one furious motorist said on Channel 2 TV, speaking near a group of ultra-Orthodox protesters. “My son serves in the army but they can’t?”

The protests, in their fourth day, were sparked by the arrest of two yeshiva students for failing to show up to the Israel Defense Forces draft offices.

The demonstrations were not backed by the entire ultra-Orthodox community, but drew support largely from extremist sections.

Sources in the Jerusalem-based Orthodox Council of Jerusalem, known in Hebrew as Eda Haredit, which has tens of thousands of affiliated ultra-Orthodox followers across the country, said the group’s leader Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss planned to join one of the expected demonstrations in the capital, the Hebrew-language Walla news website reported.

It was feared the elderly Weiss’s presence in the crowds could add to tensions with riot-control police.

The sources said they planned to swamp the jailhouse with arrested protesters and had asked those attending the demonstrations to bring with them their phylacteries and prayer shawls — ritual items used for morning prayers — as preparation for spending the night in custody, the report said.

The so-called Jerusalem Faction, organizers of the protests, said they were determined to push back against what they claimed was a police crackdown this week that has seen dozens of protesters arrested.

“We are talking about a significant increase in severity of the measures against us and we will respond in kind,” the group said according to the Hebrew media Kikar Shabbat website that is aligned with the ultra-Orthodox community.

On Wednesday the faction said there would be a “day of rage…in light of the continued arrest of Torah world prisoners, and following the Israel Police harassment of the detainees and the transfer of deserters to the Military Police,” Kikar Shabbat reported.

Six people were arrested Wednesday evening as they tried to block the path of a prison service vehicle taking the two draft dodgers to the military police. Another three ultra-Orthodox protesters were arrested in the city of Ma’ale Adumim.

Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss head of the Orthodox Council of Jerusalem, known in Hebrew as Aideh Charaidis, September 23 2012. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Forty protesters were arrested Tuesday in the city of Bnei Brak for attacking officers, “blocking roads and causing public disturbances,” police said at the time.

Police also arrested eight people in Jerusalem for blocking the light rail as part of the anti-draft protests.

This week’s protests were the latest in a series of demonstrations by ultra-Orthodox protesters over the arrest of members of the community for failing to show up to Israel Defense Forces draft offices.

The protests have often seen violent clashes with police as they try to remove demonstrators who are blocking roads. Protesters have accused the police of using excessive force, including during a protest on Monday in which an officer was filmed running through the crowd with a gun drawn threatening to shoot demonstrators.

A separate video Monday night showed a female soldier attacked by a group of ultra-Orthodox as she tried to move her car through a crowd in Jerusalem.

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish clash with Israeli police near the army recruiting office in Jerusalem, September 17, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Earlier this year the High Court of Justice struck down a law exempting ultra-Orthodox men engaged in religious study from military service, saying it undermined equality. The decision raises the possibility that they could be forced into service, a highly contentious proposition with political implications.

However, the court suspended its decision for a year to allow for preparations for the new arrangement — which also provides the government with the opportunity to pass a new law.

Ultra-Orthodox political parties, holding key positions in the ruling coalition, are likely to draft new legislation that could seek to override the court ruling and keep the exemption in place.

The issue is part of a decades-old debate over whether young ultra-Orthodox men studying at yeshivas should undergo compulsory military service like the rest of Israel’s Jewish population. After reaching the age of 18, men must serve for 32 months and women must serve for 24.

The ultra-Orthodox oppose serving for a variety of reasons, with the most extreme believing a Jewish state is not allowed before the coming of the Messiah. Others argue that study of religious texts is just as important to Israel as military service or that ultra-Orthodox soldiers would be confronted with irreligious behavior.

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