Thousands of ultra-Orthodox men from an extremist sect clashed with police on Wednesday and blocked major roads in Jerusalem, the Tel Aviv area and elsewhere during rush hour to demonstrate against the arrest of a draft evader.

According to Hebrew media reports, the man was arrested by military police after he failed to appear at an Israel Defense Forces recruiting office.

The protest was called by the Jerusalem Faction, an extremist Haredi group that regularly holds protests, mostly around the issue of conscription.

Israel’s Haredi population overwhelmingly opposes mandatory national civilian or military service, seeing it as an opportunity for secular forces to potentially poach their members.

The Jerusalem faction issued a statement naming the detainee as 23-year-old Shimon Gozlan from downtown Bnei Brak, a student at the Ponevezh Yeshiva. The statement praised him as a “prisoner of the Torah,” denounced his “sinful arrest,” and announced the protest plan.

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Protesters blocked Jerusalem’s western entrance, including the Chords Bridge intersection and the light rail line.

Protesters also blocked the Route 4 highway near Bnei Brak and brought traffic to a standstill near Tel Aviv as rush hour reached its peak. The crowds blocked the main road in both directions as well as trains between the Em Hamoshavot and Geha intersections. Heavy traffic was also reported within Bnei Brak.

After a while, police declared both protests a public disturbance and attempted to drag demonstrators off the streets.

Haredi men block streets at the entrance to Jerusalem in protest against the arrest of an ultra-Orthodox conscientious objector, September 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In Jerusalem, police used a mobile water cannon vehicle to disperse protesters. But some blocked the water cannon and crawled under him to stop him from moving. In the end he wasn’t used.

Others held signs reading “We would rather die than be drafted” or “War on the draft,” Hebrew media reported.

Mounted officers and border police later arrived and were seen arresting protesters and forcibly removing them from the streets.

Footage posted on social media showed an officer striking a Haredi man in the head, seemingly unprovoked, although the clip did not show what happened beforehand.

The capital’s police finally announced that the light rail had resumed operations along its entire route.

On Route 4, police officers were seen striking some protesters who were blocking a police vehicle.

There were also reports of violence by protesters against drivers and police officers, as well as vandalism of cars.

In recent years there have been several large protests by the Jerusalem Faction, an anti-Zionist sect, against the IDF draft.

The conscription of ultra-Orthodox men into the military has long been hotly contested, and the situation has intensified in recent months as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline government plans a law that would allow greater exemptions for Haredim from military service.

The two Haredi parties in the coalition, United Torah Judaism (UTJ) and Shas, have been threatening to overthrow the government for weeks if the military bill is not passed as quickly as possible, according to various reports citing anonymous officials.

However, several MPs from the prime minister’s Likud party reportedly rejected objections to the possible legislation.

According to Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu has promised the ultra-Orthodox parties that a legislative memorandum for the bill will be presented in the upcoming winter session of the Knesset in October.

Haredi men block the entrance to Jerusalem in protest against the arrest of an ultra-Orthodox conscientious objector, September 13, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The government’s preliminary proposal would lower the age for final discharge from the army from the current 26 to 23 or 21.

While soldiers are typically drafted starting at age 18, many yeshiva students claim deferment of their academic training and expect to stay longer than usual in religious studies programs to avoid the draft until they reach the age of in which they can be permanently freed from it.

Some in the government believe that lowering the permanent exemption age would encourage these haredi men to leave yeshiva and enter the workforce at a younger age.

According to reports, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has long been in favor of lowering the exemption age to 23, although on the condition that another bill is passed that would give additional benefits to soldiers and veterans and give a significant salary increase to combat soldiers and other people in essential roles and soldiers in non-essential roles positions would serve less time.

In this handout photo, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant (R) visit an IDF Central Command base on August 1, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Objections to the draft law were raised by senior military officials. Earlier this month, IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said Israel must continue the so-called “people’s army” model – a model in which all citizens are required to serve in the military.

In 2017, the Supreme Court invalidated a conscription law that provided broad exemptions for full-time religious scholars. A series of extended deadlines for passing a new hiring law expired at the end of July. In return, Gallant ordered in June that the IDF would not be allowed to draft ultra-Orthodox men until March 31, 2024. By then, the coalition assumes that a law providing exemptions for ultra-Orthodox people will have been passed.

Michael Bachner and Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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