BEIT SHEMESH, Israel (AP) -- After a contentious mayoral election between secular and ultra-Orthodox rivals, this deeply divided city has become a flashpoint for a religious struggle that is threatening to tear Israel apart.
Claiming the election was stolen, secular and moderately religious residents of Beit Shemesh are arranging large demonstrations against the ultra-Orthodox mayor, demanding a new vote and even suggesting the city be split in two. But the protests go far beyond the alleged election fraud. They cut at the very nature of Israel as it tries to maintain its character as both a Jewish state and a pluralistic democracy.
"I really feel like they (the ultra-Orthodox) are trying to conquer our city. It's not `live and let live.' They are pushing us out," said Etti Amos, 56, who has lived in Beit Shemesh since her family emigrated from Morocco when she was a child. She said her three children have left town because they saw no future.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of Israel's population. Maintaining a strict lifestyle that revolves around prayer, most live in ultra-Orthodox dominated towns or in insular neighborhoods in larger cities like Jerusalem.
While generally keeping to themselves, they often face resentment from the general public for shirking compulsory military service while receiving taxpayer stipends to pursue religious studies. They have also caused controversy by trying to force their conservative lifestyle on others.
Beit Shemesh, a city of about 100,000 west of Jerusalem, is split almost equally between the ultra-Orthodox and the others - a vibrant mixture of secular, modern Orthodox, Russian and American immigrants and Jews of Middle Eastern descent who all coexist peacefully. Frictions have increased as neighborhoods have begun to overlap.
Residents also say that the ultra-Orthodox mayor has neglected their needs, reneging on promises to build a sports stadium, a cultural center and a library, while funneling resources and construction projects almost exclusively to his own community.
"If the current planning policies continue to be as they have, there will be no need for an election in 2018 because the ultra-Orthodox will already be a clear majority," said Daniel Goldman, a modern Orthodox religious activist. "There is a constant undercurrent of tension and the more the ultra-Orthodox grow, the more influence they wield in City Hall, the more we feel uncomfortable."
Last week's municipal election highlighted the divisions. Secular challenger Eli Cohen said the campaign should have focused on the mismanagement by incumbent Mayor Moshe Abutbul. Instead, it became about religion.
Official results show voters lined up almost entirely along religious affiliation. Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods voted overwhelmingly for Abutbul, while other areas supported Cohen, with a little more than 900 votes separating them.
Dozens of witnesses have alleged fraud, including ballots that were damaged and disqualified, and residents with questionable identification trying to vote more than once.