Ultra-Orthodox Israelis protest removal of ancient graves to make way for new emergency room

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis protest grave removal

ASHKELON, Israel — Israeli antiquities authorities operating under heavy police guard began relocating ancient graves on Sunday to make way for construction of a hospital emergency room, setting off protests from ultra-Orthodox Jews who say Jewish remains are being disturbed.

Officers forcibly carried off dozens of demonstrators who had staged a sit-in to try to stop the work outside Barzilai Hospital in the southern city of Ashkelon. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 30 protesters were arrested.

Archaeologists have determined the graves belonged to Christians or pagans from the Byzantine period, about 1,400 years ago. But ultra-Orthodox Jews insist they are Jewish bones that should not be moved, in accordance with religious practice.

A fence surrounding the hospital was topped by barbed wire to keep out demonstrators, and police set up checkpoints at the entrances to the city to ward off any major inflow of protesters.

The operation, which got under way after weeks of political wrangling, took place under the guard of hundreds of police deployed in the area in anticipation of possible violence.

But ultra-Orthodox rabbinical leaders did not call for a major protest, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman told Israel Radio. Yaakov is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who had opposed the graves transfer.

Police also stepped up patrols in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem, where protesters set fire to trash bins on Saturday night and Sunday morning. In retaliation for attacks on city workers and destruction of property, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat late Sunday suspended city services to the neighborhoods.

After the graves were discovered, Israel’s Cabinet — under pressure from ultra-Orthodox coalition members — voted to relocate the planned facility. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reversed that decision and told his Cabinet Sunday that “the general good” trumped the ultra-Orthodox concerns.

Ashkelon is not far from the Gaza Strip, and doctors had warned that if Palestinian militants again fire rockets at the city, the trip between the hospital and a separate emergency room would be dangerous.

The relocation also would have cost millions of dollars.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority said it was not clear how many graves were at the site. Spokeswoman Yoli Shwartz estimated the transfer would take a matter of days.

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