The Israeli defence minister has ordered the army to prepare for a universal draft of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, many of whom had previously been exempt from duty.

Ehud Barak’s orders on Tuesday has led many in the insular and rapidly growing community saying they would rather go to jail than comply with an end to the decades-long draft exemptions that have caused increasing outrage in the country.

Barak gave defence officials a month to craft a plan to put the new draft procedure into practice, trying to buy time in a last-ditch effort to find an agreed solution.

The order came just hours before the expiration of a law that has granted tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews exemptions from military duty and followed a Supreme Court ruling against extending that arrangement.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told Israel's Channel 2 TV Tuesday night that the army would begin widening its list of recruits immediately.

“Starting tomorrow, there's a new law about equal service. The Israeli military will decide whom to draft, how many to draft, and it will draft,” Netanyahu pledged.

'Not ready'

Ultra-Orthodox leader Meir Porush, a former lawmaker, said drafting his people would unleash a "civil war". He said the military neither needed nor wanted to be flooded with devoutly religious conscripts.

“The Israeli military is not ready, won't be ready and doesn't want to be ready” to draft ultra-Orthodox Jews," Porush said.

What began more than 60 years ago under David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, as exemptions for a few hundred top rabbinical students to symbolically rebuild the houses of Jewish learning obliterated in the Nazi Holocaust of World War II has mushroomed into get-out-of-the-army cards for 60,000 able-bodied Israeli adult men.

Most other Jews are drafted into the military at age 18, with men serving three years and then decades of yearly reserve duty, and women serving about two years.

Source: Agencies