Dispute over Roman bones halts underpass
The contractors of Yefe Nof construction company received a direct order from Transport Ministry director-general Bentzi Salman to stop building a two level underpass at the eastern entrance to Acre-Safed.
The contractors of Yefe Nof construction company received a direct order from Transport Ministry director-general Bentzi Salman to stop building a two level underpass at the eastern entrance to Acre-Safed. The Acre Municipality says stopping the work has caused a number of problems, the greatest of which is the danger to life.
The stoppage was the result of heavy political pressure from the ultra-Orthodox community following the discovery of ancient graves. Meir Porush, MK (United Torah Judaism), led the move to stop construction of the road, which will pass beneath railroad tracks and which is essential both for safety and to ease traffic congestion at the main eastern entrance to Acre due to the passage of four trains an hour during rush hour.
Israel Antiquity Authority (IAA) archaeologists' explanations that the graves belong to Roman legionaries and not to Jews have fallen on deaf ears.
The work began about a year ago, with a budget of slightly over NIS 30 million. At the first stage of construction, road 85 was detoured via a dangerous curve several dozen meters north temporarily, and construction began on the underpass at the site of the original road. Preparation for a detour for the railroad track has also begun.
It is estimated that NIS 15 million have been invested so far in the project. However two months ago, as construction excavators reached a depth of a meter and a half, they began to discover remains of Hellentisic structures and of a Roman aqueduct, and archaeologists were called in.
IAI northern district archaeologist, Dror Barshad explained that the area was declared an antiquities site many years ago. A salvage dig was begun on the site in coordination with the construction company. The archaeologist in charge of the excavations, Yotam Tepper determined that the human remains were of Roman soldiers. This was based on artifacts, including pagan altars, a hoard of coins that was apparently a soldier's salary, and the fact that the bones were burned, which was not in keeping with Jewish tradition.
When the IAI reported the find to the Prime Minister's Office, responsible for the Religious Affairs Ministry as is customary, Rabbi David Shmidel of Atra Kadisha, an ultra-Orthodox association fighting the desecration of Jewish graves, got wind of the find. Rabbi Shmidel called on Porush and others, and the work was stopped.
"When this number of graves are discovered, even the slightest doubt that they may be Jewish should be enough. If a certain effort must be made, it should be made," Porush said, refering to the effort to find an alternative engineering solution.
Because Rabbi Shmidel says the graves do not fit a category of Jewish law that would allow them to be moved, a suggestion has been made to build a bridge rather than an underpass, at an additional cost of NIS 24 million.
"A bridge close to the neighborhood will be ugly. Plus, authorizing of planning for a bridge will take years. Is the danger supposed to remain until then?" Rotem asked.
The IAI's Barshad noted that the only body that can order the removal of the graves is the Transport Ministry. "In a month the rains will start and if a decision is not made soon, we will cover up everything with soil to protect it from destruction and vandalism."