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Report: Gaza at severe risk of famine: Live updates on the war between Israel and Hamas

Report: Gaza at severe risk of famine: Live updates on the war between Israel and Hamas

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the army must begin recruiting ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, a decision that threatens to split Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government amid the war in Gaza.

In a unanimous decision, a panel of nine judges held that there was no legal basis for the long-term military exemption granted to ultra-Orthodox students. The court ruled that without a law distinguishing between seminarians and other men of military age, the country’s draft mandatory laws should similarly apply to the ultra-Orthodox minority.

In a country where military service is mandatory for most Jewish Israelis, both men and women, the exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews has long drawn resentment. But anger over the group’s special treatment has grown as the war in Gaza enters its ninth month, requiring tens of thousands of reservists to serve on multiple tours and costing the lives of hundreds of soldiers.

“These days, in the midst of a difficult war, the burden of inequality has become more acute than ever before – and demands a sustainable solution to this issue,” the Supreme Court said in its ruling.

The decision threatens to widen one of the most painful divisions in Israeli society, pitting secular Jews against ultra-Orthodox Jews, who say their religious studies are as necessary and protective as the army. It also exposed the fault lines in Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition, which relies on the support of two hard-line parties that oppose forced conscription of their voters, even as other Israelis are killed and wounded in Gaza.

Israeli courts have ruled against the exemption before, including Supreme Court decisions in 1998, 2012 and 2017. The Supreme Court has repeatedly warned the government that to continue this policy, it must be written into law – even though such a law would be vulnerable to constitutional challenge. , as was the case previously – while also giving the government time to draft our legislation.

But for seven years, since the last law was repealed, successive Israeli governments have been slow to draft new legislation. In 2023, the law finally reached its expiration date, prompting the Israeli government to order the military simply not to recruit ultra-Orthodox Jews while lawmakers worked to exempt them.

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On Tuesday, the court indicated that its patience had finally run out, and struck down the order as illegal. It did not set a timetable for when the army should begin recruiting tens of thousands of religious school students of military age. Such a move would likely pose an enormous logistical and political challenge, as well as be met with mass resistance from the ultra-Orthodox community.

Instead, the ruling included a way to pressure ultra-Orthodox Jews to accept the court’s ruling: suspending millions of dollars in government support given to religious schools, or seminaries, dealing a blow to the venerable institutions at the heart of ultra-Orthodox Judaism. Community.

The court ruling threatens Mr. Netanyahu’s fragile wartime coalition, which includes secular members who oppose the exemption and ultra-Orthodox parties that support it. A defection by either group could lead to the collapse of the government and the call for new elections, at a time when popular support for the government declines. The opposition in the Israeli parliament largely wants the exemption to be ended.

The Hamas-led attacks on October 7 — which sparked the eight-month war in Gaza — somewhat softened the ultra-Orthodox stance toward conscription, with some leaders saying those who cannot study the Bible should go into the army.

“However, the maximum that the ultra-Orthodox community is willing to offer is much lower than what the general Israeli public is willing to accept,” said Israel Cohen, a commentator on the ultra-Orthodox radio station Israel Cohen.

But he said the ultra-Orthodox parties, which have few palatable options, may not be keen to bring down Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition. “They don’t see an alternative, so they’ll try to make it work as long as they can,” Mr. Cohen said. “They will make more concessions than they were willing to make a year ago in an attempt to maintain the government.”

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Right now, the military must devise a plan to welcome into its ranks thousands of soldiers who oppose military service and whose isolation and tradition are at odds with modern fighting power.

Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem-based think tank, said the court’s decision creates “a gaping political wound at the heart of the coalition” that Mr. Netanyahu must now urgently address.

In a statement, Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party criticized the Supreme Court for issuing the ruling when the government was planning to pass legislation that would have made the issue obsolete. The party said that the law proposed by the government would increase the number of extremist recruits while recognizing the importance of religious study.

It was not clear whether Mr. Netanyahu’s proposal would ultimately be subject to judicial scrutiny. But if passed by Parliament, the new law could face years of court challenges, giving the government extra time, Mr. Plessner said.

The Supreme Court’s decision on Tuesday immediately sparked outrage among ultra-Orthodox Jewish politicians. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews view military service as a gateway to integration into a secular Israeli society that would lead young people to stray from a way of life guided by the Torah, the Jewish holy books.

“The State of Israel was created as a home for the Jewish people, for whom the Torah is the cornerstone of their existence. The Holy Torah will prevail, Yitzhak Goldknopf, a minister in the ultra-Orthodox government, said in a statement on Monday.

After the October 7 Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, Israelis were united in their determination to respond. But when thousands of reservists were asked to serve in a second and third rotation in Gaza, the fault lines in Israeli society quickly resurfaced.

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Some Israeli analysts warn that the war may extend to additional fronts in the West Bank and the northern border with Lebanon, prompting the government to call for more recruits and further straining relations between secular and ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Indeed, many Israelis — secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox alike — see the draft issue as just one skirmish in a broader culture war over the country’s increasingly uncertain future.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have been exempt from military service since Israel’s founding in 1948, when the country’s leadership promised them self-rule in exchange for their support in creating a largely secular state. At that time, there were only a few hundred yeshiva students.

Now there are more than 60,000 religious students of military age, and the number of ultra-Orthodox Jews has increased to more than a million people, approximately 13% of Israel’s population. They enjoy great political influence and their elected leaders have become kingmakers, appearing in most Israeli coalition governments.

But as the power of the ultra-Orthodox Jews grew, so did anger over their failure to join the army and their relatively small contribution to the economy. In 2019, Avigdor Lieberman, a former ally of Netanyahu, rejected his offer to join a coalition that would legalize the exemption project for ultra-Orthodox Jews. This decision helped send Israel to repeated elections, five of them in four years.

Last year, after Mr. Netanyahu returned to power at the head of his current coalition, he sought to legislate a plan to weaken the country’s judiciary, sparking mass protests. For the Orthodox Jews, who supported judicial reform, the main motivation was to ensure that the Supreme Court could not impede their ability to avoid the draft.

Gabe Sobelman And Mira Novick Contributed to reports.