They want Israel to take full control of Gaza, but controversially they won’t enlist to fight

By Matthew Knott and Kate Geraghty

Orthodox Jewish males in front of the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem.Credit: Kate Geraghty

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Jerusalem: Schmuel Zilberman has two big hopes for Israel’s war against Hamas. He wants to see his nation occupy and take full control of the enclave of 2.3 million people, almost all of whom consider themselves Palestinians. And he wants Jews to again begin building settlements in Gaza to solidify their presence there.

Zilberman is 18, the age at which Israelis begin their compulsory military service. But he won’t be serving on the frontline. He is an ultra-Orthodox Jew, meaning that he is exempt from conscription on religious grounds. Standing in the old city of Jerusalem he and his friend Josef Haim explain how ultra-Orthodox Israelis have an entirely different view of military service to zionist Israelis, who are driven primarily by their commitment to the nation state.

An ultra-Orthodox Jew walks through the streets of the Old City during the evening in Jerusalem.Credit: Kate Geraghty

Known as the Haredim, meaning “those who tremble before God” in Hebrew, ultra-Orthodox Jews can claim a military exemption because they have to devote themselves full-time to the study of the Torah, the holy Jewish text.

“Each one of us has our own way to contribute,” Haim, 21, says. “Ours is to study and learn the Torah. By doing that we help the war effort.” Haim is wearing tefillin: a pair of black leather boxes containing Hebrew parchment scrolls. The Torah commands Jewish men to bind tefillin onto their head and upper arm every weekday as part of their religious practice.

The exemption for ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10 per cent of the population, is a controversial topic in Israel because of the perception that they are free-riding on the rest of society – especially if they are settlers in the West Bank who rely on the defence force to protect them. While some ultra-Orthodox Jews have rushed to enlist in the army following Hamas’ massacres of October 7, many are holding out.

Elyohu Shalom, a 34-year-old from Jerusalem, wants to see Hamas wiped out in Israel’s war with Gaza, but is declining to enlist. After praying at the Western Wall, regarded as the holiest site in Judaism, he says ultra-Orthodox Jews can assist the war in other ways, such as by volunteering and providing spiritual guidance.

Unusually quiet: Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.Credit: Kate Geraghty

Shalom says the Western Wall would usually be packed with Jewish visitors from around the world coming to pray but because of the war, there is only a small crowd at the site. Almost all the shops and restaurants in this complex and deeply religious city have closed, and the normally bustling Old City market is virtually deserted.

It’s a different story on the other side of the Western Wall, where a mass of people is trying to gain entry to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. It is regarded as the third-holiest site in Islam behind Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

Muslim worshippers wait to pass through security checks to enter the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.Credit: Kate Geraghty

We visit during Friday prayers, an especially significant time for Muslims. Some worshippers arrive in golf buggies and motorcycles; one elderly visitor is hooked up to an oxygen tank. It is a combustible atmosphere, with Israeli troops and police forcefully blocking any visitors they say are not eligible to enter the site.

Police hit some worshippers with batons as they try to enter the mosque; others are pushed, shoved and shouted at to leave. The fractious mood heightens when a group of men arrives carrying the coffin containing a beloved relative on their shoulders. The men are momentarily blocked from entry, but after some confusion are eventually allowed inside.

Hamas named its brutal October 7 massacre operation the “Al-Aqsa Flood”, using a 2022 raid by Israeli police on the mosque as a pretext for the attacks. In the days leading up to Hamas’ attacks, Israeli settlers stormed the complex and attempted to perform Talmudic rituals – a breach of Jewish law, which insists it is forbidden for Jews to enter any part of the site.

At the start of October, footage also went viral of ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting on the ground beside a procession of foreign Christian worshippers passing through Jerusalem.

Muslim worshippers carrying a coffin are stopped momentarily by an Israeli police officer before entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.Credit: Kate Geraghty

Only Muslims are allowed to pray at the mosque, with Christians and Jews usually only permitted to enter as tourists.

At times of heightened tension – like now – Israel restricts entry to the site of the mosque to Muslims over a certain age as a security precaution. The age limits can fluctuate between 35 and 65 depending on the day, and the rules of entry are not clearly explained or easily confirmed. There are multiple checkpoints before entering the mosque: some men are granted access at two stages before being turned around at the final checkpoint.

In the foreground, an Orthodox Jewish man gestures to other men as Muslim worshippers pray outside the Al-Aqsa mosque after having been refused entry.Credit: Kate Geraghty

This lack of clarity adds to confusion and heightens the tension, angering those who hoped and expected to pray at the holy site. Like the worshippers, soldiers from the Israel Defence Forces tell us there is no set criteria for who is allowed entry – although older Muslims are clearly given priority.

“They said: you have many mosques in your city, why don’t you pray there?” says Khaled, a doctor from Nazareth, who drove two hours with his wife and children to pray at Al-Aqsa. They were denied entry, and didn’t understand why. “What is the reason? There is no reason.”

It’s the same story with 50-year-old Hassan, from East Jerusalem, who prays at the mosque most days a week but was this time denied entry by Israeli police. “It’s all about how the soldier feels: happy or sad,” he says.

Muslim worshippers were refused entry to the Al-Aqsa Mosque.Credit: Kate Geraghty

As an act of protest, a large group of Muslims gathers to pray outside at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, regarded as the most important pilgrimage site for Christians in the world.

Even when Jerusalem is virtually empty, this ancient city remains a hotspot for inter-faith tensions. This friction is only likely to worsen as Israel’s war with Hamas grinds on in Gaza and civilian casualties mount.

More coverage of the Hamas-Israel conflict

  • Cascading violence: Tremors from the Hamas attacks and Israel’s response have reached far beyond the border. But what would all-out war in the Middle East look like?
  • The human cost: Hamas’ massacre in Israel has traumatised – and hardened – survivors. And in Gaza, neighbourhoods have become ghost cities.
  • “Hamas metro”: Inside the labyrinthine network of underground tunnels, which the Palestinian militant group has commanded beneath war-ravaged Gaza for 16 years. The covert corridors have long provided essential channels for the movement of weapons and armed combatants.
  • What is Hezbollah?: As fears of the conflict expanding beyond Israel and Hamas steadily rise, all eyes are on the militant group and political party that controls southern Lebanon and has been designated internationally as a terrorist group. How did it form and what does Iran have to do with it?

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