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Zealot protests flare in troubled Israeli town

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Tue, 27 Dec 2011 18:20 GMT
Author: Allyn Fisher-Ilan
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By Allyn Fisher-Ilan

JERUSALEM, Dec 26 (Reuters) - Israeli police and ultra-Orthodox protesters clashed on Monday in a troubled Israeli town on the outskirts of Jerusalem where protests have flared over demands to crack down on zealots accused of harassing women.

A police officer was injured and several black-robed protesters taken into custody in the disturbances that erupted after a public outcry over televised footage of an eight-year-old Israeli girl complaining of verbal abuse from black-robed Orthodox men while on her way to school.

"Nazis, Nazis," religious protesters in the town of Beit Shemesh shouted at Israeli officers escorting them from the scene, Israeli television footage showed.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said one of the protesters was arrested on suspicion of throwing a rock that slightly injured a police officer. Three other ultra-Orthodox men were being questioned, he said.

He said Israeli police were also investigating complaints that some of the Orthodox men had spat at and spoken "disrespectfully" at girls en route to an elementary school, where Naama Margolese, 8, whose spotlight television interview was aired on Friday, also attended class.

Police have reinforced their presence in Beit Shemesh where the dispute flared at the weekend, and when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded a crackdown on the zealots some have accused of spitting at or harassing women they see as immodest.

Israeli television crews filming in the town complained rocks were thrown at them in Beit Shemesh on Monday, where ultra-Orthodox men angry at the removal of a sign urging women to avoid certain streets, threw stones.

"We have increased our presence in the town to keep it calm," Rosenfeld said.

The dispute in Beit Shemesh underscores a widening faultline in Israel between religiously devout and a majority of non-observant Jews, a dispute often exacerbated by the powerful role of ultra-Orthodox political parties in Israeli governments.

Though numbering only 10 percent of Israel's mostly Jewish population of 7.7 million, ultra-Orthodox voting patterns give them considerable clout, helping to secure them welfare benefits and wider influence.

RABBIS CONDEMN VIOLENCE

But many rabbis have insisted the incidents in Beit Shemesh were the acts of a fringe minority. Some rabbis, among them members of Netanyahu's leading ultra-Orthodox coalition partner, the Shas party, have joined him in condemning the violence.

Netanyahu intervened in the festering dispute as the public began venting outrage at attempts by zealots to spread their practices of gender segregation, embraced by many Orthodox communities citing religious teachings, into the wider public domain.

"In a Western, liberal democracy, the public realm is open and safe for all, men and women both, and neither harassment nor discrimination have any place there," Netanyahu told his cabinet on Sunday.

Israeli women have complained for years of black-robed religiously fervent men forcing them to sit separately at the back of public buses.

More recently, and largely in Jerusalem, some rabbis have taken to demanding that businesses avoid posting photographs of women or employ them in any of the shops they patronise.

But the controversy Israelis have now dubbed "exclusion of women" burst into the headlines only recently after an incident involving a military base where Orthodox male soldiers walked out of a ceremony in protest of a performance by female singers.

With the focal point having moved to Beit Shemesh, activists have made plans to hold a larger rally there on Tuesday.

Some in the city fear the dispute may scar relations among an already delicate mix of religiously observant immigrants living alongside Israelis embracing a more modern lifestyle.

Matti Rosensweig, a spokesman for Beit Shemesh told reporters there that the mayor was "working overtime to try and calm the atmosphere." (Editing by Matthew Jones)

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