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Published: Thursday December 26, 2013 MYT 11:35:01 PM
Updated: Thursday December 26, 2013 MYT 11:35:51 PM

Israeli court cancels mayoral vote in town divided by religion

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli court dealt a blow on Thursday to the ultra-Orthodox community's political hold over a town that has been a focus of national divisions between the Jewish state's secular majority and its religious minority.

Citing voter fraud in Beit Shemesh, a town of 80,000, a court in nearby Jerusalem cancelled the result of an October mayoral election, won by the ultra-Orthodox incumbent Moshe Abutbul, and ordered a new ballot.

It used evidence from a police investigation that found some people had voted with others' identity cards, and non-residents had been able to cast ballots using fake addresses.

Abutbul stoked controversy during campaigning when he said on television there were no gays in what he called his "holy and pure" town, a once largely secular, working-class community.

Two years ago, Beit Shemesh drew international attention after an eight-year-old girl belonging to the less traditionalist Orthodox community complained of being spat at by ultra-Orthodox zealots who deemed her clothing immodest.

The incident turned the town into a symbol of widening religious and political schisms in Israel over issues such as gender separation on some buses and exemptions from military conscription granted to Jewish seminary students.

Last year, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox protesters threw rocks and blocked roads in Beit Shemesh after members of the community were arrested on suspicion of tax fraud and money laundering.

Abutbul won the October ballot by 956 votes over his secular challenger, Eli Cohen, who alleged fraud.

In its ruling, the court did not ascribe any wrongdoing to the mayor, who will remain in office until a new ballot is held.

No date was announced for the new vote, and the police investigation is continuing.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by John Stonestreet)

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