Israel: Graves in Ashkelon ER Row Are Byzantine, Not Jewish

Netanyahu: Creation of bombproof Ashkelon ER in public's best interest; 30 arrested as Haredim protest removal of graves near excavation site.


The Israel Antiquities Authority on Sunday said preliminary findings from the excavation at the site of the planned emergency room in Ashkleon reveal that the ancient remains buried there are not Jewish, but from the Byzantine era.

The controversial plan to relocate the remains buried at the site of the planned emergency room for Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon sparked outrage among Israel's ultra-Orthodox community, which views the removal of buried remains as sacrilege.

The Antiquities Authority said initial excavations revealed Byzantine-era bones and ceramics.

At least 30 ultra-Orthodox demonstrators were arrested late Saturday and Sunday as they protested the removal of the human remains believed to be thousands of years old from the construction site.

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators protest in Ashkelon
Ilan Asayag

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said that the government's decision to construct the bombproof emergency room at Barzilai Medical Center is in the public's best interest, despite opposition from the ultra-Orthodox community.

"After the Second Lebanon War, we made a decision to erect a new emergency room next to Barzilai Medical Center," said Netanyahu at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday. "There is an important ultra-Orthodox public that is offended by this. We reached a decision to implement [the plan] and the general public's interest is the deciding factor."

Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush on Sunday visited the medical center to register his opposition to the project, calling the excavations an "embarrassment and a disgrace".

"It was possible to find alternatives to digging up graves that may be Jewish," Porush said. "It would have been preferable to have found a compromise."

Netanyahu had refused permission for a preliminary check to ascertain that the graves were not Jewish, Porush said.

In response to Porush's comments, the head of the Ashkelon municipal council, Benny Vaknin, said: "The real shame is with the people who delayed construction of the bombproof emergency room, while during Operation cat Lead people could have died…That is the biggest disgrace."

Police tackled protesters who attempted to climb fences and stop work at the construction site in Ashkelon, where work began late Saturday evening, while in Jerusalem demonstrators blocked roads and set fire to garbage bins late Saturday night in anger at the evacuation of human remains to make way for a bombproof emergency room at Barzilai.

On Saturday night, police deployed in force along key arteries in Jerusalem, including Bar Ilan Street and Route 1 leading into the capital, to prevent attempts to obstruct roads.

Earlier in the evening, a demonstration took place near the Satmar yeshiva in the Mea She'arim neighborhood, with participants calling for "the prevention of any possibility to desecrate the graves." In ultra-Orthodox districts, leaflets called for "the Land of Israel to go to war."

Meanwhile, Barzilai officials were on alert for possible attempts to injure the medical staff and disrupt their work.

Law enforcement officials said they will respond harshly to any attempts by protesters to disrupt the antiquity authority's excavations.

"The Haredim will not allow the relocation of the graves to occur quietly," said a senior police official. "While they did not succeed in preventing this evacuation, they will certainly do everything to deter a similar thing from occurring in the future."

Although the Ashkelon hospital has served as the flashpoint of the latest tensions, police in the south do not expect heavy rioting there.
Nonetheless, police have fanned out in the south, with officers from around the country deploying in the area as backup.

Police say that due to the thin presence of the Eda Haredit, the extreme religious sect that has spearheaded violent demonstrations against the authorities, they do not expect serious clashes in Ashkelon. Senior figures of the Ger Hasidic dynasty in Ashdod told the authorities that they do not intend to take part in the unrest.

Security forces intend to ring-fence the hospital and guard the entrances to the city to prevent demonstrators from infiltrating the site. Sources say the ultra-Orthodox may try to reach Ashdod before dawn.

Netanyahu reversed an earlier government decision to move the emergency room - a costly venture. Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman had not wanted the wing moved for religious reasons.

After the cabinet approved Litzman's proposal, the ministry's director-general, Dr. Eitan Chai-Am, resigned in protest. Due to the heavy criticism by medical officials and the press, Netanyahu ordered a special task force headed by a top aide to investigate the matter.

After the prime minister determined that the remains should be relocated and the emergency room built on the site originally designated, Litzman did not resign.

Barzilai officials said over the weekend that the hospital was quiet, and that staff members were anticipating a decision on the start of the bones' relocation by the antiquities authority. The relocation process, in which the remains will be handed over to the Religious Services Ministry, is expected to begin within the next few days.

The hospital also completed fencing work around the area expected to hold the emergency room.

"According to plans, the evacuation of the gravesites will continue for two to three days," said a hospital official. "This will enable the start of digging to put the foundation in place for the emergency room right after the Shavuot holiday."

According to the medical center's management, "The hospital is operating as per usual. The police are making contingency plans that will enable the full functioning of all the hospital's divisions during the evacuation of the gravesites."

Dr. Leonid Eidelman, the chairman of the Israeli Medical Association, visited Barzilai on Friday. "The bombproof emergency room is critical for the residents of the south, and we are hopeful that its construction will be completed quickly," he said.

Eidelman warned the police commissioner of the danger that Barzilai medical staff could be the targets of violent acts by protesters against the removal of the remains.

"The police have made it clear that they have acted with determination to prevent any possible harm to the hospital," the medical association said in a statement