Israeli same-sex couples can have children via surrogates within the country, the Supreme Court ruled Sunday, a step advocates hailed as strengthening equality and critics blasted as eroding family values.
The court ruled that restrictions on surrogacy for same-sex couples and single men within the Jewish state must be lifted within six months.
The decision by the court, headed by president Esther Hayut, was a result of a battle that began more than a decade ago.
Israel is a leader in the Middle East on LGBTQ rights and has several openly gay men serving in parliament, but until now surrogacy remained off-limits to gay couples and single men.
People who couldn't have children with surrogates in Israel resorted to solutions overseas in countries including India, Nepal, Thailand and the United States.
Surrogacy, where a woman agrees to bear a child for another person or couple, was legalised in Israel in 1996, at first only for heterosexual couples before single women were added.
The male same-sex couple Etai and Yoav Arad-Pinkas in 2010 first appealed to the courts for the right to surrogacy.
When that attempt failed, they filed a new petition in 2015 together with other LGBTQ rights groups.
- 'Equality, finally!' -
Last year the Supreme Court ordered lawmakers to end discrimination in surrogacy within 12 months, saying excluding gay couples and single men was unconstitutional.
But conservative ultra-Orthodox lawmakers in Israel's parliament, the Knesset, thwarted a proposal to expand access.
After Israeli elections in March yielded a new parliament, lawmakers continued to come up empty-handed.
"We cannot reconcile with the continued difficult harm to human rights that is a result of the existing surrogacy arrangement," Hayut wrote in the ruling.
Gay rights advocate Oz Parvin, head of the Association of Israeli Gay Fathers, celebrated the ruling as "amazing".
He said he and his partner resorted to surrogacy in India to have twin daughters nine years ago.
Now, he said, other couples will be able to go through the entire surrogacy process in their own country.
"It's a lot easier and more sane," he said.
Hard-right lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich with the opposition Religious Zionism party said the ruling was a sign of "crumbling of the Jewishness of the state of Israel".
Yaakov Litzman of the opposition's ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism echoed him saying it "risked the future of the Jewish people".
The ruling is likely to reveal friction in the new governing coalition, which includes Meretz, whose chair Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz is openly gay, and the conservative Islamist Raam, which has called homosexuals "deviants".
Horowitz meanwhile hailed the ruling as "equality, finally!", adding on Twitter that his ministry would prepare to receive surrogacy requests from men.