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Israel lawmakers revive bill on ultra-Orthodox conscription

Israeli police officers try to remove ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting against defence ministry plans to end their longstanding exemption from  compulsory military service
— Jerusalem (AFP)

Israeli lawmakers voted Tuesday to revive a bill that would increase the conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men only gradually, despite objections from the defence minister and criticism it falls short of the army's needs.

The move by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's governing coalition comes after the Gaza war forced Israel to call up hundreds of thousands of reservists, sending the flashpoint issue of exemptions from mandatory military service back to the top of the political agenda.

Lawmakers voted 63 to 57 to revive the bill, which would set yearly benchmarks for increasing the number of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men serving in the military after it passed a preliminary reading in the Knesset in 2022.

Critics of the bill say it falls far short of the military's needs since Hamas's unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel triggered war in Gaza.

Israel's High Court of Justice has heard several petitions in recent weeks by civil society groups calling for mandatory military service by ultra-Orthodox men but the court has so far issued no ruling.

Hundreds of thousands of Israeli reservists have served for months in the Gaza Strip, in the occupied West Bank or along the northern border with Lebanon where the army has exchanged near-daily fire with Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah.

A growing chorus of Israelis has called for ultra-Orthodox men to share the burden of military service.

Most Jewish Israeli men are required to perform military service, but the ultra-Orthodox community has long received sweeping exemptions in order to study in religious seminaries.

These exemptions have been a source of growing political friction for decades, and the issue toppled a previous Netanyahu-led coalition government in 2018, precipitating years of political deadlock.

Netanyahu currently leads a coalition with two ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right groups.

Breaking ranks with the government, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant voted against the bill's revival, saying such "national changes must be done with broad consensus".

"We must not play petty politics on the big backs of IDF soldiers," Gallant wrote on X after the vote.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid accused the premier of pushing forward with a conscription bill without "any value" in order to hold onto power.

The vote amounts to "one of the most despicable moments in the history of the Knesset," he wrote on X, accusing the government of seeking to enact a "law of evasion".

Following Tuesday's vote, the bill will be sent to a parliamentary committee for approval before returning to the full chamber for two further votes before it becomes law.