The Jerusalem municipality halted all services to Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) neighborhoods last night, for fear that its workers would be targets of retribution from the violent protesters who rioted in those neighborhoods to protest the removal of ancient graves from the grounds of Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon earlier that day.
Several municipal employees in the capital were beaten yesterday by angry Haredi demonstrators, and ultra-Orthodox youth staged riots along Bar-Ilan Street. Authorities arrested at least 30 Haredi protesters in the city.
In an official statement, the municipality announced that it would cease servicing the affected neighborhoods due to "a long list of violent events in which municipal workers were assaulted and municipal buildings were vandalized by Haredi protesters."
"Jerusalem municipality workers are making Herculean efforts to provide residents of these neighborhoods with services that are to their benefit," said Mayor Nir Barkat. "Yet in cases where the lives of these workers are in danger, the municipality will not hesitate to halt these services until tempers subside."
"I expect the Haredi leadership to calm tensions on the ground so that we can restore municipal services to their normal routine," the mayor added.
Last night, close to 700 Haredim took part in a demonstration in Jerusalem's Shabbat Square organized by the Eda Haredit sect, the extreme ultra-Orthodox faction that has been most vocal in its objection to the relocation of the human remains in Ashkelon.
Several demonstrators set fire to garbage bins, and traffic to and from the square was blocked. Shortly after the protest began, dozens of ultra-Orthodox youth also descended on Bar-Ilan Street and began hurling stones and bottles. They burned garbage bins in the middle of the road to block traffic and strewed debris and garbage throughout the street.
A large police force, including mounted officers, dispersed the crowd using water cannons. Three of the rioters were arrested and taken into custody.
Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss, the leader of the Eda Haredit, charged, "They are arresting righteous yeshiva students who are protesting the desecration of graves. It is they [the police] who ought to be put in prison."
"Only risking lives will enable us to stop the desecration," added Rabbi David Shmidel, the head of Atra Kadisha, an organization dedicated to preserving Jewish places of burial. "We will fight even if they dig up the graves of soldiers and other Jews."
The Israel Antiquities Authority is expected to transfer the remains to Jerusalem, thus paving the way for construction of a bombproof emergency room that will be joined to Barzilai's existing hospital. The government initially approved the Barzilai expansion three years ago, after experts unequivocally determined that the bones did not belong to Jews.
Yet Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism ) opposed the move, and won cabinet approval for a plan to build the bombproof emergency room in an alternate location instead, in deference to the human remains found there. That decision touched off a chorus of harsh criticism in the press, prompting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to reverse course and order the emergency room built on the original spot.
UTJ's Knesset faction is scheduled to convene a special meeting today to discuss whether to resign from the governing coalition. Some UTJ members have called on the party to pull out of the government over the Barzilai controversy.
But Litzman, who originally said he would resign if the grave relocation proceeded, has since retracted his statement.
Some faction members have threatened to abstain in no-confidence votes against the coalition, and the coalition whip, MK Menachem Eliezer Moses, announced that he would support resigning from the government to protest the relocation of the graves.
"They are abusing us," he said. "They are not taking us into account. I don't see any reason to support such a government."
Litzman, who also serves as party chairman, refrained from stating his opinion, saying that the faction would obey any directive handed down by its rabbis.
The antiquities authority concluded its excavations under extensive protection from hundreds of police officers. Police yesterday arrested 47 ultra-Orthodox Atra Kadisha members who tried to trespass onto the site of the excavations and hurled insults at officers and antiquities authority personnel.
Police suspect some of the detained Atra Kadisha members of setting fire to nearby fields.
The Kiryat Gat Magistrate's Court remanded 16 demonstrators who refused to identify themselves to the authorities and broke out in song during the court hearing.
Another group of ultra-Orthodox men, who tried to reach Ashkelon by sea, were arrested as they congregated on a beach in Ashdod before boarding the boat.
Police officials expressed satisfaction that the nationwide effort succeeded in containing the violence and enabling the excavation to proceed unhindered.
After completing its work, the antiquities authority announced that findings at the site had confirmed that the remains belonged to pagans rather than Jews.
In the coming days, the authority is slated to hand the remains over to the Religious Services Ministry.
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