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The number of yeshiva students whose army service has been put on hold because they have declared Torah study as their occupation currently stands at 55,300, as opposed to just over 50,000 last year, according to Colonel Tziki Sela, head of the IDF Department of Planning and Manpower Administration.

Sela told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Wednesday that of those 55,300, about 13,000 - or 24 percent - are no longer of use to the army, as they are age 26 and above.

The number of 18-year-olds who receive exemptions from mandatory military service is currently 5,000 people.

"We need the haredim in the army," Sela clarified. "If all the 5,000 that received exemptions would have been drafted, then it would have cleared all our reserves from operative use and they could have focused on training instead. It's a national interest."

Sela later said that his statement was his own estimation, and he did not have data to support it.

He also told the committee that the Air Force has opened two new technological training courses for ultra-Orthodox recruits, and that over 100 ultra-Orthodox attended these courses this year, with 25 studying computer programming, and 88 receiving training as aircraft mechanics.

These special courses include instruction in English and math as well as basic military training. In addition, graduates can receive advanced technical courses after their discharge from the military.

Many of the participants in the courses choose to remain in the army as career soldiers. Sela emphasized that no female soldiers take part in the courses, a policy that also exists in the ultra-Orthodox Nahal unit, an infantry battalion that consists only of ultra-Orthodox conscripts.

The committee meeting was called to review progress on the implementation of the Tal Law, a legislation which regulates the exemption of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students from the mandatory three years' service in the army.

Meanwhile, the number of ultra-Orthodox youth who opt for national service instead of joining the army has doubled in recent months, according to the head of the national service administration, Reuven Gal. Though their numbers are still very low, some 180 new ultra-Orthodox volunteered to the national service in June and July in comparison with only 80 in May.

Two-thirds of national service volunteers sign up for a year's service of 8 hours a day, and a third choose to spread their service over a two-year period. National service officials released an optimistic predication that they hoped the number of ultra-Orthodox who sign up with them will reach 2,000 a year in 2012.

MK Yossi Beilin of Meretz responded to the data by saying that the number of ultra-Orthodox volunteers who joined the national service was "pitiful." The left-wing lawmaker also voiced his concern over the high cost of running the national service, and complained that many of the volunteers were given assignments in West Bank settlements which he politically opposes.

During the committee session, the national service administration asked for more funds to increase stipends given to ultra-Orthodox volunteers. Currently, a married IDF soldier with a child receives NIS 3,400 a month, while a national service volunteer with the same family background is paid NIS 1,900.ela surprised those present when he said he had no objections to the national service's request, so long as soldiers still receive higher salaries than volunteers or yeshiva students who do not join the army or the national service.