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Israel parliament passes law to conscript ultra-Orthodox Jews

Israel's parliament has passed a controversial bill that would draft ultra-Orthodox men into compulsory army or social service. The men have been largely exempt for decades to pursue their religious studies.

Lawmakers passed the long-awaited Security Service Bill on Wednesday 65 to 1 in a poll broadcast on Israel's parliamentary television channel.

The opposition in the Knesset, which includes ultra-Orthodox and left-liberal parties, boycotted the controversial vote.

The new law stipulates that ultra-Orthodox men must either join the army or perform civilian service. The law will also impose criminal sanctions on ultra-Orthodox draft dodgers. However, students who study at religious seminaries could defer service until age 26.

Since Israel's founding in 1948, the ultra-Orthodox have largely been allowed to avoid military service to pursue their religious studies. Military service is compulsory in Israel, with men serving three years and women serving two.

The bill had been met with strong opposition. Earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews

protested the bill in Jerusalem

(pictured above). The ultra-Orthodox, who make up about 8 percent of Israel's eight million citizens, insist their young men contribute to the preservation of the Jewish state and culture through prayer and study.

The exemption has also enraged secular Israelis who say the ultra-Orthodox are not doing their fair share especially as their community has increased in size. Older ultra-Orthodox men often don't work and collect welfare stipends while continuing to study full time.

The issue featured prominently in last year's election, which led to the establishment of a center-right government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's

government called for coalition discipline in support of the bill, which will not go into effect until 2017.

It is one of three government flagship bills up for approval in the three-day Knesset session. On Tuesday, lawmakers approved a long-promised electoral reform bill. On Thursday they are set to vote on bill that would make it mandatory for any government to hold a referendum before signing a peace deal involving a withdrawal from Israeli-held territory.

hc/mz (AFP, Reuters)

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