An ultra-Orthodox organization is demanding an immediate halt to work on a combined public, commercial and residential project in Ashkelon, saying that remnants of Jewish graves have been found at the location.
Representatives of Atra Kadisha who came to the construction site Monday claimed that graves have been removed and vowed to fight the project "like we fought the Barzilai hospital," referring to protests in 2010, that eventually included riots in Jerusalem, over human remains found in an area slated to hold the Ashkelon hospital's new emergency room.
The multimillion-dollar complex will include the new city hall, an auditorium for the performing arts and a central plaza, as well as a high-rise office building, a 8,000-square-meter commercial center and 200 apartments.
Work on the project began about a month ago. On Thursday an Atra Kadisha representative visiting the site discovered that the Israel Antiquities Authority was conducting a pre-construction rescue dig. On Sunday representatives from Atra Kadisha and Ashkelon's Chief Rabbi, Yosef Chaim Blau, were refused entry by site managers.
Shimon Ben Haim, an activist with Atra Kadisha, said the group had asked the city's religious council to intervene. He added that if the work is not halted immediately large numbers of Haredim will come to demonstrate.
"We will continue to oppose the excavations," Ben Haim said, adding, "If the issue is not dealt with quickly we will fight against it, like we did in the hospital, until a solution is found."
According to Atra Kadisha volunteer Haim Friedman, "What is happening is simple: They're going to build a large complex, the antiquities authority found graves while excavating, and at a lower level they also found graves from the Second Temple period. In the past there was a city here and people were buried here. There was also a Jewish settlement, but even if they are not Jewish, it is prohibited to dig under a Muslim cemetery - it's not humane," Friedman said, adding: "Currently we're at the negotiation stage to stop the excavations."
The project plans call for the city to lease part of the complex from the Ashkelon Economic Company, which will rent out the remaining office space. As well as the new city hall, a culture hall and a central square are planned.
A spokesperson for the Israel Antiquities Authority said: "The authority is carrying out excavations to save antiquities before building the Ashkelon municipality, and the results of the excavations will be published on their completion."