Ultra-Orthodox protesters block highway, clash with police

Demonstrators stop traffic on several major roads near Bnei Brak, in protest of draft-dodging yeshiva student’s arrest

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men demonstrated in Bnei Brak on Monday evening, blocking several main roads and clashing with police in protest of the arrest of a draft-dodging yeshiva student.

Several dozen of the protesters, members of a radical ultra-Orthodox sect, blocked the city’s main Jabotinsky Road. Others stopped traffic on the nearby Route 4 highway. Those actions led to violent clashes with police officers deployed in the area.

An AFP journalist saw border police officers physically dragging away sit-down demonstrators.

Television channels reported that the main highway was cleared after two hours.

The demonstration followed a similar one in Jerusalem on Thursday, over the arrest of the young man, a 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.

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators block a road during a protest against army conscription in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 12, 2018 (AFP PHOTO / Ahmad GHARABLI)

Police said they had allowed Monday’s demonstration to take place, but would show “zero tolerance toward those who seek to disturb public order and who may harm the safety of the public.”

Protest organizers, meanwhile, said “the determination of the Haredi public to fight the enlistment decree will not be deterred,” and vowed to “fight in every way the edict that has felled thousands in the spiritual ruin of the IDF.”

They went on to lambaste ultra-Orthodox leaders in the Knesset, who, on Sunday night, reached a compromise deal with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to push a controversial conscription bill through the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and bring it to a preliminary plenum vote.

“The great demonstration taking place today, and those that follow, is also directed at the benighted, draconian law that came from the appeasement approach of Haredi representatives in the Knesset,” they said. “We will continue to fearlessly defend the walls of true Judaism.”

Police remove ultra-Orthodox demonstrators who are blocking a road during a protest against army conscription in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 12, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Ahmad GHARABLI)

While ultra-Orthodox Israelis are largely 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.

The issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription has triggered a potentially terminal crisis in Netanyahu’s ruling coalition, with ultra-Orthodox political parties threatening to break up the government unless a bill to exempt their youngsters from the draft was passed.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and his fiercely secular Yisrael Beytenu party want to see the ultra-Orthodox serve in the military like other Israelis, and have vowed to fight the bill.

There was a lull in the political infighting on Monday, after a government committee approved sending the bill for a preliminary reading, with a final vote not expected for months.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in the Knesset, on October 24, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

But Liberman vowed to oppose the bill, even at risk of bringing down the government, as Netanyahu urged him to stay in the ruling coalition and stave off early elections.

Should Liberman bolt the coalition, leaving it with 61 seats out of 120, that would likely spell early elections. Netanyahu said Sunday he would not lead a government with such a paper-thin margin.

AFP contributed to this report.

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