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Religious tensions hit a new high in Beit Shemesh yesterday when some 15 ultra-Orthodox men entered a religious elementary school for girls in Ramat Beit Shemesh B and refused to leave the premises. The ultra-Orthdox were protesting the presence of the girls near their homes in the Sheinfeld neighborhood, in which most of the residents are in fact of the nationalist-religious persuasion.

The Haredim are also claiming that Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul had promised them in the past that a Talmud Torah (ultra-Orthodox elementary school ) for their children would be erected on the site.

While Abutbul denies making a promise of any sort to either of the sides, the Education Ministry insists that it did indeed authorize the school's operation at the site, and that the "Orot Neria National Religious School will begin the school year together with the education system in general on this coming Thursday."

The ultra-Orthodox men entered the school in the very early hours of the morning, and when parents of the schoolgirls got word of the incident, around 100 of them turned up at the scene in an effort to remove the invaders. Physical confrontations ensued, and police were eventually called in to break up the fracas and evict the ultra-Orthodox from the building.

The ultra-Orthodox's opposition to the school began some 18 months ago, when work on the new school building at the site was started. The construction nevertheless continued, with financial assistance from both the Beit Shemesh municipality and the Education Ministry.

A week ago, however, the school's parents committee received a letter from Mayor Abutbul in which he said that he would not allow the girls to use the new school building in the coming academic year after receiving threats from the area's ultra-Orthodox residents.

The threats of physical violence had been directed against both him and the girls, and he could not guarantee their safety, the mayor said in his letter, suggesting that the pupils be divided among the other schools in the city.

"The mayor is in fact saying: 'The mighty rule. I am not willing to make a decision even though there is a legal ruling that says the structure is yours,'" said Esti Moskowitz, who chairs the parents committee at the school. "The threats the mayor received come from a small group in Beit Shemesh and all the institutions are afraid of it, a group of radicals who are currently controling the city.

"They want the entire city to be ultra-Orthodox. Great! Tomorrow, they will tell me I need to wear a wig, and that my son has to wear long pants. Who will stop them then?"

Following the eviction of the ultra-Orthodox men from the school building, around 1,500 people staged a demonstration at the site to protest what they defined as "blackmail on the part of a handful of people who represent themselves only." The protesters vowed not to give in to the threats and intimidation of the ultra-Orthodox, and also harshly criticized the Beit Shemesh mayor for giving in to their threats.