Israel government shaken by ultra-Orthodox conscription row

Israel government shaken by ultra-Orthodox conscription row
Most ultra-Orthodox want the exemptions to be extended to all religious students, saying serving in the military is incompatible with their values. (Reuters)
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Updated 28 March 2024
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Israel government shaken by ultra-Orthodox conscription row

Israel government shaken by ultra-Orthodox conscription row
  • Military service is obligatory for all young Israelis – 32 months for men, and two years for women
  • But almost all the ultra-Orthodox have been able to escape it

JERUSALEM: A legal row over controversial exemptions from compulsory military service for Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jews had the country’s right-wing coalition government scurrying to find a compromise Thursday.
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara sent shock waves through the government — which is reliant on ultra-Orthodox parties — declaring Wednesday there was no legal framework to the continuing exemptions.
This means that ultra-Orthodox will be liable to be called up from April 1, as Israel’s war against Hamas militants rages in the Gaza Strip.
The government has set itself a Thursday deadline to strike a deal.
With the war in Gaza, pressure has increased on the country’s large and growing ultra-orthodox community who have long been spared military service which is compulsory for everyone else.
After several legal challenges to the exemptions, the Supreme Court gave the government until Wednesday to draw up a new conscription bill.
But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been unable to get agreement on the deeply divisive issue, with his ultra-Orthodox allies fiercely opposed to conscription for their community.
The government has asked for a short extension to the Supreme Court deadline in the hope of formulating a deal.
The coalition depends on two large ultra-Orthodox parties.
Last year the government voted through unprecedented funding equivalent to just over $1 billion for orthodox religious schools, or yeshivas.
Netanyahu is working, at any cost, on “avoiding an early election” that would benefit Benny Gantz, a centrist member of his war cabinet, Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, has said.
Recent polls suggest that if there were an election, Gantz’s party would win the largest number of seats.
Before the war in Gaza, the religious parties had also supported Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reforms, in the hopes of further extending military exemptions.
The judicial revamp sparked months of protests, often by tens of thousands of Israelis.
But Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in February announced a reform of military service that would include the ultra-Orthodox. Some Israeli media perceived Gallant’s move as a challenge to Netanyahu. Both men belong to the same Likud party.
Military service is obligatory for all young Israelis — 32 months for men, and two years for women.
But almost all the ultra-Orthodox have been able to escape it, with 66,000 members of the community excused from military service last year alone.
Jewish men who study the Torah full-time in religious schools have long been granted an annual deferment from military service until the age of 26, at which point they become exempt.
Young ultra-Orthodox women are automatically exempt.
The exemptions date from Israel’s founding in 1948, and were meant to allow a group of 400 young people to study sacred texts and preserve Jewish traditions, much of which had been lost during the Holocaust.
But today’s ultra-Orthodox number 1.3 million people, according to the Israel Democracy Institute — bolstered by a fertility rate of more than six children per woman, compared with the national average of 2.5.
Most ultra-Orthodox want the exemptions to be extended to all religious students, saying serving in the military is incompatible with their values.


Iran’s presidential election dominated by Khamenei loyalists

Iran’s presidential election dominated by Khamenei loyalists
Updated 19 sec ago
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Iran’s presidential election dominated by Khamenei loyalists

Iran’s presidential election dominated by Khamenei loyalists
  • Iranians will select successor to Ebrahim Raisi on Friday
  • Outcome likely to influence succession to Supreme Leader, 85
DUBAI: Iranians choose a president on Friday in a tightly controlled election following Ebrahim Raisi’s death in a helicopter crash last month, with the outcome expected to influence the succession to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s top decision-maker.
With Iran’s supreme leader now 85, it is likely that the next president will be closely involved in the eventual process of choosing a successor to Khamenei, who has ensured candidates sharing his hard-line views dominate the presidential contest.
The election coincides with escalating regional tensions due to the Israel-Hamas conflict, increased Western pressure on Iran over its rapidly advancing nuclear program, and growing domestic dissent over political, social, and economic crises.
However, the looming succession to the fiercely anti-Western Khamenei is the overriding concern among Iran’s clerical elite.
The Guardian Council, a hard-line vetting body of clerics and jurists aligned to Khamenei, has approved five hard-liners and one low-profile moderate candidate from an initial pool of 80.
Prominent among the hard-liners are Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, parliament speaker and former head of the powerful Revolutionary Guards, and Saeed Jalili, a former nuclear negotiator.
The sole moderate candidate, Massoud Pezeshkian, has the endorsement of Iran’s politically-sidelined reformist camp that advocates detente with the West.
The fiercely anti-Western Khamenei has not backed any candidate publicly. However, in a televised speech on Tuesday he said: “One who thinks that nothing can be done without the favor of America will not manage the country well.”
His adviser Yahya Rahim Safavi has urged voters to elect “a president whose views do not conflict with those of the supreme leader,” state media reported.
“The people should choose a president who considers himself the second in command ... The president should not create division,” said Safavi, a former chief commander of the Guards.
While the president’s role has a high international profile, real power rests with the supreme leader, who has the final say on state matters like foreign or nuclear policies and controls all branches of government, the military, media and the bulk of financial resources.
Raisi was widely seen as a potential successor to Khamenei, and his sudden death has sparked a race among hard-liners seeking to influence the selection of Iran’s next top leader.

Divided nation
An Iranian insider close to Khamenei, who asked for anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter, said the Supreme Leader “has no tolerance for political infighting when cohesion among those in power is essential.”
“A president, who is loyal and aligns completely with the supreme leader while also a trusted ally of the Revolutionary Guards, can significantly contribute to a seamless transition of power,” said the insider.
While devout supporters of the clerical establishment are expected to vote for hard-liners, many Iranians may choose to abstain amid limited electoral options, discontent over a crackdown on dissent, and anger over worsening living standards.
The chances of Pezeshkian, who is also strongly loyal to Khamenei, depend on attracting millions of disillusioned mainly young voters who have stayed home in elections since 2020 and also on persistent splits among the five hard-line candidates.
The reformists’ electoral strength remains uncertain, however, as some voters believe they failed to deliver greater freedoms during their past tenures in power.
Unrest sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini, a young Kurdish woman, in custody in 2022, exposed a widening divide between reformists and their power base, after leaders distanced themselves from demonstrators who demanded a “regime change.”
Reformists remain faithful to Iran’s theocratic rule but advocate detente with the West, economic reform, social liberalization and political pluralism.
Khamenei called for a high turnout that he said “will silence the Islamic Republic’s enemies.”
Iranian dissidents, both domestically and abroad, have called for an election boycott, distributing the hashtag #ElectionCircus widely on the social media platform X, arguing that a high turnout would legitimize the Islamic Republic.
Narges Mohammadi, the imprisoned Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said in a message from Tehran’s Evin prison that the vote would be a “sham” election.
The government relied on repression to maintain power, and its aim in holding the election “is not to uphold democracy and people’s rights, but to reinforce power and tyranny,” she said.
However, prominent reformist politicians have warned that low voter turnout will allow hard-liners to maintain control over all arms of the state.
Raisi clinched victory in 2021 on a turnout of about 49 percent — a significant drop from the 70 percent seen in 2017 and 76 percent in 2013 — largely amid widespread voter apathy.
The five hard-line candidates have largely avoided discussing social and political freedoms during their campaigns and television debates, while acknowledging the country’s economic woes without offering specific plans to tackle the crisis.
Pezeshkian, a 69-year-old former health minister, advocates social freedoms and has spoken up for the rights of women and ethnic minorities. He has pledged to foster a more pragmatic foreign policy.
If no candidate wins at least 50 percent plus one vote of all ballots cast, including blank votes, a run-off round between the top two candidates will be held.

Israel prefers diplomacy to end Hezbollah conflict, security adviser says

Israel prefers diplomacy to end Hezbollah conflict, security adviser says
Updated 13 min 50 sec ago
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Israel prefers diplomacy to end Hezbollah conflict, security adviser says

Israel prefers diplomacy to end Hezbollah conflict, security adviser says
  • Israel is discussing with Washington a possible joint effort by the United States, European and some Arab countries to find a replacement for Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.

JERUSALEM: Israel will spend the coming weeks trying to resolve the conflict with Lebanon’s Iran-backed group Hezbollah and would prefer a diplomatic solution, Israel’s national security adviser said on Tuesday.
National security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said Israel had been discussing with US officials the possibility that an expected end of intense Israeli military operations in Gaza would allow an “arrangement” to be reached with Hezbollah.
Iran-backed Hezbollah began attacking Israel from the north shortly after Palestinian Islamist group Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel, which sparked the war in Gaza.
Shelling on Israel’s northern border has led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from areas on both sides of the frontier, and has escalated in recent weeks, leading to fears of an all-out conflict.
“We and the Americans believe and we will dedicate weeks now in an attempt to reach an arrangement,” Hanegbi said at the Herzliya conference.
“If there will not be an arrangement through diplomatic means, everyone understands that there must be an arrangement through other means. For now we prefer to focus on the diplomatic campaign,” he said.
Hanegbi also said Israel was discussing with Washington a possible joint effort by the United States, European and some Arab countries to find a replacement for Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip.


Israeli supreme court says ultra-Orthodox must serve in military

Israeli supreme court says ultra-Orthodox must serve in military
Updated 50 min 3 sec ago
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Israeli supreme court says ultra-Orthodox must serve in military

Israeli supreme court says ultra-Orthodox must serve in military
  • Israel supreme court rules religious seminary students must be drafted to military

JERUSALEM: Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men for military service, a decision that could lead to the collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition as Israel continues to wage war in Gaza.
The court ruled that in the absence of a law that distinguishes between Jewish seminary students and other draftees, Israel’s compulsory military service system applies to the ultra-Orthodox like any other citizens.
Under longstanding arrangements, ultra-Orthodox men have been exempt from the draft, which is compulsory for most Jewish men and women. These exemptions have long been a source of anger among the secular public, a divide that has widened during the eight-month-old war.


Israeli airstrikes kill at least 24 in Gaza City, say Gaza officials

Israeli airstrikes kill at least 24 in Gaza City, say Gaza officials
Updated 47 min 30 sec ago
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Israeli airstrikes kill at least 24 in Gaza City, say Gaza officials

Israeli airstrikes kill at least 24 in Gaza City, say Gaza officials
  • Israeli airstrikes hit two schools, a house in Gaza City
  • Tanks plow deeper into Rafah in southern Gaza

CAIRO: Israeli forces killed at least 24 Palestinians in three separate airstrikes on Gaza City early on Tuesday, health officials said, while tanks deepened their incursion into the town of Rafah in the south of the enclave.
Two of the strikes hit two schools in Gaza City, killing at least 14 people, medics said. Another strike on a house in the Shati (Beach) camp, one of the Gaza Strip’s eight historic refugee camps, killed 10 others.
The house in Shati belonged to the extended family of Hamas political chief, Ismail Haniyeh, who is based in Qatar, killing one of his sisters along with other relatives too, family members and medics said.
Haniyeh, who leads Hamas’ diplomacy and is the public face of the militant Islamist group that has been running Gaza, has lost many of his relatives in Israeli air strikes since Oct. 7, including three of his sons.
Israel’s military said its forces had targeted militants overnight in Gaza City who had been involved in the planning of attacks on Israel. The militants included some involved in holding hostages captive and some who had taken part in Hamas’ cross-border attack on Oct. 7.
The Israeli Air Force struck two structures “used by Hamas terrorists in Shati and Daraj Tuffah in the northern Gaza Strip. The terrorists operated inside school compounds that were used by Hamas as a shield for its terrorist activities,” the military statement said.
Hamas denies using civilian facilities such as schools and hospitals for military purposes.
More than eight months into the fighting, international mediation backed by the United States has so far failed to bring a ceasefire agreement. Hamas says any agreement must bring an end to the war, while Israel says it will agree only temporary pauses in fighting until Hamas is eradicated.

Shortages of medicine
Israel’s ground and air campaign in Gaza was triggered when Hamas-led militants stormed into southern Israel on Oct. 7, killing around 1,200 people and seizing more than 250 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
The Israeli offensive in retaliation has killed almost 37,600 people, according to Palestinian health authorities, and has left the tiny, densely populated Gaza Strip in ruins.
Gaza’s health ministry said on Tuesday that hospitals and medical centers in the enclave were experiencing a severe shortage of medicines and medical supplies due to the continued Israeli offensive, Israel’s control and closure of all crossings and its targeting of the health sector in Gaza.
In particularly short supply are medications needed for emergency, anaesthesia, intensive care and operations, the ministry said in a statement, while cancer patients were unable to travel to hospitals.
Since early May, fighting has focused on Rafah, on Gaza’s southern edge abutting the border with Egypt, where around half of the enclave’s 2.3 million people have been sheltering after fleeing other areas.
Residents said fierce fighting had taken place overnight in western areas of Rafah, where tanks have extended their incursion in recent days, blowing up several homes in the area.


Palestinian leader Abbas to visit Moscow, Russian agencies report

Palestinian leader Abbas to visit Moscow, Russian agencies report
Updated 25 June 2024
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Palestinian leader Abbas to visit Moscow, Russian agencies report

Palestinian leader Abbas to visit Moscow, Russian agencies report
  • TASS said Ushakov did not disclose the timing but said the dates had been agreed

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will visit Russia, Russian news agencies reported on Tuesday, citing Kremlin foreign policy adviser Yuri Ushakov.
TASS said Ushakov did not disclose the timing but said the dates had been agreed. Another state agency, RIA, said Abbas had planned to come to Russia in November last year, but the visit was postponed at the request of the Palestinian side.
Russia says it wants to help resolve the conflict in the Middle East and that peace will not be possible without the establishment of a Palestinian state.