JERUSALEM Israel detained an ultra-Orthodox man on Wednesday on suspicion of calling a woman soldier a "whore" on a public bus for refusing his appeals that she move to the back of the vehicle, a police spokesman said.
The incident came days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to crack down on acts of harassment by religious zealots, with the publicity surrounding these cases risking upsetting his political alliances with ultra-Orthodox parties.
Much of the controversy has surrounded complaints by women against ultra-Orthodox men trying to force them to sit separately in the backs of public buses in deference to their religious beliefs against any mixing of the sexes in public.
Soldier Doron Matalon said on Israel Radio that a devoutly religious man had approached her and insisted she move to the back of a bus in Jerusalem earlier on Wednesday, after she had embarked at a station near her military base.
"It was very frightening," Matalon said, saying the incident was not the first in which she had been asked to move to the back of a bus but that this time she felt more defiant.
Matalon said she replied to the man: "You can move to the back if you want. Just like you don't want to see my face, I don't want to see yours." She added that she was "serving our country, which unfortunately means I am also defending you."
The man responded by shouting at her "whore, go sit in the back," Matalon said, adding that the driver later stopped the vehicle and police arrived.
Police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld confirmed an ultra-Orthodox man was taken into custody and "questioned about his motives" for insulting the soldier, but no decision had yet been made as to whether he would be charged.
Some bus lines that serve predominantly religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem and other cities have been segregated despite complaints from women's groups that their civil rights were being violated.
Under Israeli law women are entitled to object to sitting in the back, but they risk verbal and physical abuse for refusing to do so.
Several thousand activists demonstrated in the city of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem on Tuesday against incidents in which ultra-Orthodox zealots have spat at and insulted women and female children, complaining they were immodestly dressed.
Some ultra-Orthodox politicians have condemned the violence as the actions of an extremist fringe but see the controversy as an effort to incite public opinion against their politically influential minority in the Jewish state.
(Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan)