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Israel’s Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled unanimously that the military must begin drafting ultra-Orthodox men for compulsory service, a landmark decision that could lead to the collapse of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition as Israel continues to wage war in Gaza.

The historic ruling effectively puts an end to a decades-old system that granted ultra-Orthodox men broad exemptions from military service while maintaining mandatory enlistment for the country’s secular Jewish majority. The arrangement, deemed discriminatory by critics, has created a deep chasm in Israel’s Jewish majority over who should shoulder the burden of protecting the country.

The court struck down a law that codified exemptions in 2017, but repeated court extensions and government delaying tactics over a replacement dragged out a resolution for years. The court ruled that in the absence of a law, Israel’s compulsory military service applies to the ultra-Orthodox like any other citizen.

Under longstanding arrangements, ultra-Orthodox men have been exempt from the draft, which is compulsory for most Jewish men and women, who serve three and two years respectively as well as reserve duty until around age 40.

These exemptions have long been a source of anger among the secular public, a divide that has widened during the eight-month-old war, as the military has called up tens of thousands of soldiers and says it needs all the manpower it can get. Over 600 soldiers have been killed since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack.

Politically powerful ultra-Orthodox parties, key partners in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, oppose any change to the current system. If the exemptions are ended, they could bolt the coalition, causing the government to collapse and likely leading to new elections at a time when its popularity has dropped.

In the current environment, Netanyahu could have a hard time delaying the matter any further or passing laws to restore the exemptions. During arguments, government lawyers told the court that forcing ultra-Orthodox men to enlist would “tear Israeli society apart.”

A statement from Netanyahu’s Likud party criticized the ruling, saying a bill in parliament backed by the Israeli leader would address the draft issue. Critics say it falls short of Israel’s wartime needs.

“The real solution to the draft problem is not a Supreme Court ruling,” the statement said.

In its ruling, the court found that the state was carrying out “invalid selective enforcement, which represents a serious violation of the rule of law, and the principle according to which all individuals are equal before the law.”

It did not say how many ultra-Orthodox should be drafted, but the military has said it is capable of enlisting 3,000 this year.

Some 66,000 ultra-Orthodox men are now eligible for enlistment, according to Shuki Friedman, an expert on religion and state affairs and the vice-president of the Jewish People Policy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

The ruling of Israel’s highest court must be followed, and the military is expected to begin doing so once it forms a plan for how to draft thousands of members of a population that’s deeply opposed to service, and which follows a cloistered and modest lifestyle the military may not be immediately prepared to accommodate. The army had no immediate comment.

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