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Minister Yitzhak Cohen of Shas, who holds the religious affairs portfolio in the Prime Minister's Office, says he will promote a bill to punish anyone who cremates a human body with a prison sentence of up to a year and a fine of up to NIS 30,000.

In response to the fire Wednesday that destroyed the crematorium run by the Alei Shalechet company, Cohen announced he would convene the Ministerial Committee on Burial Affairs, which he chairs, for an urgent discussion on outlawing cremation.

"Alei Shalechet and its heads suckle their heritage from the annihilators of the Jewish people," Cohen said yesterday. "I will put an end to those who implement a renewed final solution here. The day is not distant when the people of Israel shall rejoice to spread the ideological ashes of these demonic people outside Israel's territorial waters," he added.

Cohen's committee previously approved a bill banning cremation, but the legislative effort was suspended when the bill's sponsor, Shas chairman Eli Yishai, became a minister. The preamble to Yishai's bill explained that it aimed to formalize in law the duty to preserve human bodies after death. The bill seeks to criminalize any ceremony "during which the deceased's body is disfigured and making it impossible to be brought for burial."

MK Avshalom Vilan (Meretz) termed Cohen's statements "an Iranian attempt," and vowed "there will not be an ayatollah police here."

Vilan has submitted a bill designed to compel the National Insurance Institute to pay for cremation, not just burial, and it was approved by the Ministerial Committee on Legislation. Vilan promised to continue promoting his bill, although its chance of passing has dimmed in view of Shas' position.

Cohen's statements prompted Meretz-Yahad chairman Yossi Beilin to reveal that his will contains the instruction to cremate his body.

"Shas' leadership is pushing Israel toward dark days in which citizens will be prevented even from deciding what should be done with their bodies after death," Beilin said.

Yigal Hai adds: Fire investigators suspect that arson was responsible for the blaze at the Alei Shalechet facility, on Moshav Hibat Zion in the Sharon region. Evidence collected yesterday included signs of a break-in, three conflagration points in the building and damage to gas pipes and a generator.

"All the signs suggest a growing suspicion that this incident was arson," said a spokesman for the fire service, Moshe Mosko.