Jerusalem’s deputy mayor on impact of October 7 and the power of ultra-Orthodox parties

In an interview with The National, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum says the responsibility of mobilisation is not being shared

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather for a rabbi's funeral in Jerusalem. EPA
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Ultra-Orthodox Jews are “not sharing the burden” of defending Israel, Jerusalem's deputy mayor said, as she called for them to no longer be exempt from military or national service on religious grounds.

In an interview with The National, Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, said the October 7 attacks and subsequent war in Gaza had dramatically opened the debate over the fairness of Israel's current laws.

“There is a feeling in this country that they don't share the burden, that the burden is left to our children and not their children,” said Ms Hassan-Nahoum.

Two of the deputy mayor's four children are currently serving: one in the army and one in national service.

With Israel’s army at full stretch since the Hamas attacks of October 7, there is growing resentment among some sections of Israeli society that ultra-Orthodox Jews remain exempt from the army or national service, she said.

“I think that after what's happened, the rest of Israel are not going to be so tolerant,” she said, adding that just a few-hundred ultra-Orthodox volunteering recently “doesn’t move the needle”.

More than 230 Israeli soldiers have officially been reported killed since October 7, when Hamas-led attacks killed about 1,200 people in Israel. About 28,500 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the health ministry there, with numbers expected to rise as the Israeli military presses on with its campaign in southern Gaza.

In a major address on Tuesday the Israeli army chief of staff, Lt Gen Herzi Halevi, said there was a need to widen recruitment for military service.

The exemption of ultra-Orthodox Jews was made at the foundation of Israel in 1948, and justified mainly because they had suffered disproportionately high fatalities in the Holocaust.

Israel's 1.3 million ultra-Orthodox Jews make up nearly 15 per cent of the country's population – a figure set to rise to nearly a third by 2045. They provide crucial electoral support to the right-wing cabinet led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

There are 22,000 ultra-Orthodox men and women currently available for the military draft, but their political parties, who are represented in the current hardline coalition government, have blocked attempts to integrate them into the military.

“It's all about the political power of the ultra-Orthodox parties, to preserve power by the fact that their people do not integrate into the wider society,” said the deputy mayor. “Because the minute you integrate, then you're not a block voter or an individual and they don't want their flock to become individual thinkers.”

She also called for Arab-Israelis to be conscripted into the war. There are currently 40,000 Arab-Israelis eligible for the draft.

'Loss of faith'

Israeli society had also suffered “maybe a loss of faith” in both its security forces and government following the October 7 attacks, said the politician, who is a member of the ruling Likud party.

The security failures surrounding the October 7 attacks had led to “a loss of innocence” and given Israeli society “a rude awakening", said Ms Hassan-Nahoum.

“But more than anything we are shocked at how our own security services let us down,” she said, speaking close to her Jerusalem office. “There was a loss of innocence over the level of Hamas brutality, but also maybe a loss of faith towards our military and security forces, possibly even our government.”

She called for national elections as soon as possible, because, she said, the political debate over hostages and a lasting solution to the war was building tension in Israeli society.

“I'm hoping there will be elections by the end of 2024 otherwise it's going to be a festering boil that is going to tear us apart as a society. We need to have an election because then everything will come out in that election.”

Jerusalem tensions

Ms Hassan-Nahoum also questioned the actions of extreme right-wing politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has made controversial visits to Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem has remained largely peaceful since October 7, mainly due to a more unified spirit fostered during the Covid-19 pandemic, during which the local council helped out many Arab families, Ms Hassan-Nahoum said.

The city, whose eastern half is part of the occupied West Bank, has escaped the worst of the soaring violence across the territory in which 388 Palestinians have been killed, with the most deadly clashes occurring in the Jenin and Tulkarm refugee camps. More than 7,000 Palestinians have been arrested across the occupied West Bank, including in Jerusalem, according to the Palestinian Prisoners Society.

The relative quiet in Jerusalem has been threatened by the National Security Minister’s dawn trips to Haram Al Sharif, Islam’s third-holiest site and home to Al Aqsa Mosque. The site is also highly revered in Judaism.

With Ramadan approaching next month, Mr Ben-Gvir, who has previously faced charges of hate speech against Arabs, has stoked tension with his visits.

“If I were Ben-Gvir I wouldn't go, but I'm not Ben-Gvir,” said Ms Hassan-Nahoum.

Asked if his presence could be provocative, especially during Ramadan, she said: “If you want to see something as provocative, you see it, and if you don't, you don't.”

She said she also wanted to make it clear that Jews were “not storming” the compound, and claimed that “we facilitate freedom of worship for Muslims as we do for Christians”.

Abraham accords

As founding member of UAE-Israel Business Council, the politician has been heavily involved in promoting the Abraham Accords, under which Israel established relations with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco in 2020.

“I think people underestimate how strong the Abraham Accords actually are,” she said, adding that contact had remained with business people in the region.

She believed that the Arab countries involved understood the Palestinian-Israeli conflict had been inflamed by Iran and that it was a question of those “countries that want peace and prosperity for their people and not death, destruction and fundamentalism”.

On a more optimistic note, she argued that Jerusalem was now much more integrated as a society than it was five years ago.

“You go to any cafe or to a mall and it's Jews and Arabs sitting in the same cafes or in the parks, and you didn't see that so much before.”

Updated: February 16, 2024, 8:14 AM