ultra-Orthodox bus israel
According to ultra-Orthodox strict religious practice, men and women should not mix in public (Reuters)

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish rioters have attacked several buses in Israel after police arrested a religious couple who demanded a woman sit at the back.

Authorities in the devoutly religious city of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem, said that ultra-Orthodox demonstrators hurled stones and smashed the windows of three local buses, which were packed with passengers.

"When the driver stopped, four people in Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] dress blocked the bus' path and began to bang on the windows with a hammer," Moshe Schuman, a passenger, told the Haaretz newsaper.

"The passengers got upset; there were people there with babies.

"The driver tried to flee the scene but he couldn't because they were blocking the bus' path. Only after they'd smashed all the windows and ran away the driver was able to drive to a safe spot."

No one was injured and no arrests were made, police said.

Demonstrators were protesting against the detention of an ultra-Orthodox couple, who were reported to police by the driver of the bus they were travelling on.

The couple had asked a female passenger to move from the front of the bus to the back, in compliance with the ultra-Orthodox religious precept that men and women should not touch or mix in public unless they are married.

The incident happened on a special 'mehadrin' line dedicated to Orthodox Jews, on which men and women sit separately, but only on a voluntary basis.

The moved passenger, Rachel Rosenfeld, an American who recently relocated to Israel, said she agreed to change seats but the bus driver overheard the conversation and called the police.

"A woman came up to me and told me the bus was 'kosher' and I told her I didn't know what that meant," Rosenfeld told Ynet newspaper.

"She said it's customary for women to sit in the back of the bus, and I told her I had no problem with that, only that it'd be difficult to move with the kids and my bag. She offered to help me and we moved to the back.

"Right then the driver got mad and said he would call the police, and there were a few men there who were looking for some action maybe and they provoked him. After two stops, police came and arrested the couple."

The incident came as ultra-Orthodox Jews are seeing some of the privileges they have long been granted slashed by secular reforms.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up about 10 percent of Israel's 8 million citizens, and their political parties have long played a highly influential role in Israeli politics.

However in March they were left out of the ruling coalition for the first time in a decade, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dropped them in favour of the secular Yesh Atid Party.

Earlier this month, the government approved a controversial Yesh Atid plan to gradually end the automatic military draft exemptions to ultra-Orthodox seminary students.