Contractor bows to Haredi pressure to protect Muslim gravesite
In the face of pressure from ultra-Orthodox activists, a contractor in Yavne has agreed to pour a layer of concrete at his own expense - one million shekels - before constructing a building on a suspected gravesite.
The ultra-Orthodox protesters, who speak out against such projects on religious grounds, were apparently unphased by the fact that the graves in question appear to be Islamic tombs dating to the seventh century.
The project consists of two eight-story apartment buildings.
When construction of the first one began some years ago, builders discovered ancient tombs and ritual objects, which they carefully brought to the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv. Some of the tombs were relocated and thereafter the building was completed with little incident.
When contractor Yossi Vaknin purchased the rights for the second part of the plan, he found himself facing the ultra-Orthodox organization "Atra Kadisha" ("Holy Sites" ), which threatened to cause a scandal because of the tombs found under the first building.
"We don't care if these are Jews, Muslims or Christians," Atra Kadisha activist Arahle Yekter told Haaretz. "A tomb is like a home. The dead person purchased the land in which he will lie for his eternal rest, and this rest must never be interrupted in any way."
On Tuesday, the Antiquities Authority had planned to commence its routine procedure of rescuing valuable archeological artifacts before allowing a new building to be constructed. That same day, dozens of ultra-Orthodox protesters were bused from Jerusalem to Yavne. The archeologists never arrived, but the site has clearly been designated as a new contested area.
A welcomed promise
Atra Kadisha and other ultra-Orthodox activists stressed this week that the disagreement could blow up into a genuine crisis.
"We have thousands of people who can leave Jerusalem and Kiryat Sefer on tens of buses if the Antiquities Authority decides to excavate the site," Yekter said.
Sources close to the dispute told Haaretz that Vaknin had been aware there was a risk of finding tombs on the site when he purchased the construction rights for the project. They said that after some negotiations, the contractor agreed not to dig a foundation for the building and instead pour a concrete "bed" on which the building would be constructed.
The contractor's promise was welcomed by the ultra-Orthodox, who felt reassured that no deceased seventh-century Muslim will be disturbed by the building project. Vaknin, who describes himself as an observant man, will cover the cost of the concrete bed - estimated at NIS 1 million.
The Antiquities Authority said this week that they were not aware of the arrangement, but welcomed it. "If there is such an understanding, we're only waiting for a commitment from the contractor to build the concrete layer, which will spare us the need to do any rescue digs," the authority's Tel Aviv district director said. "We're interested in antiquities, not fights."
Vaknin - about to pay out a million shekels to honor non-Jews nobody knows who have been dead for over 1,300 years - said he had a simple hope: "Having honored Atra Kadisha, I only expect one thing - for this to end quickly and amicably."