Israel’s Knesset advances contentious ultra-Orthodox conscription law

Far-right religious parties are backing the bill with a view to inserting changes and limiting conscription.

Ultra Orthodox Jews block a highway in Bnei Brak as they protest against their conscription into the Israeli armed forces on April 1, 2024. - Israel's decades-old exemption from military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews is poised to end on April 1, a divisive move that imperils the coalition government as the nation is at war with Hamas. (Photo by Oren ZIV / AFP)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews block a highway in Bnei Brak as they protest against their conscription into the Israeli armed forces on April 1, 2024 [Oren Ziv/AFP]

The Israeli Knesset has voted to revive a bill that would end exemption on military conscription for some ultra-Orthodox religious students.

The 63-57 vote in the parliament late on Monday means that the legislation will now head to committee review. The return of the bill from the previous parliament has provoked anger from opponents as well as those that say it does not extend conscription sufficiently, as Israel conducts the war in Gaza and deals with expanding conflict with Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Iran-linked forces across the region.

The legislation aims to slowly ramp up conscription among the ultra-Orthodox, whose members have for decades enjoyed exemptions to study the Torah.

However, it would also lower the age of exemption from mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox Jews from 26 to 21, thereby limiting the numbers that could be called up to serve.

That saw far-right and religious factions support the vote, alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while it was opposed by more centrist and military-linked factions, who say it does not do enough to ensure conscription at a time when the country increasingly needs soldiers.

Defence Minister Yoav Gallant voted against the bill, saying it signals an engagement in “petty politics at the expense” of the Israeli military.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid wrote in a post on X that it was “one of the most despicable moments of humiliation of the Israeli Knesset ever” and characterised the legislation as a “law of evasion and insubordination”.

The vote came one day after former general and war cabinet minister Benny Gantz and former army chief Gadi Eisenkot resigned from the emergency coalition government over major differences on managing the war and planning for the future of the Gaza Strip.

The bill was originally put forward by Gantz in 2022 under the previous government, but he now opposes it, saying it is inadequate in responding to the current military needs of Israel.

The far-right religious parties, who are the main backers of Netanyahu, strongly oppose a general expansion of conscription to include the ultra-Orthodox. However, they backed the legislation in order to include changes during the review stage.

“We have a great opportunity that should not be missed. The ultra-Orthodox public must not be pushed into a corner,” far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is leading the charge in expanding illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, said in a statement.

He was confronted by angry members of some of the families of Israelis still held captive in Gaza on Tuesday, who demanded the government does more to bring them back.

Some 120 captives, about 80 of whom are believed to be alive, remain in the Palestinian territory. The Israeli military killed at least 274 Palestinians and injured close to 700 others during attacks on the Nuseirat refugee camp last week that led to the rescue of four captives.

Israeli attacks on Gaza since the start of the war have killed at least at least 37,124 people killed and wounded 84,712, with thousands more missing under the rubble and presumed dead. Israel launched its assault on the besieged territory after a Hamas-led attack in southern Israel killed about 1,140 people.

Source: Al Jazeera