Bacteria Soup? Depends Who You Ask

How did it happen that the ministry concealed from the public a closure order it had issued for one of the most popular hot springs resorts in Israel?

After the closure order for Hamat Gader hot springs was rescinded, and it was determined that according to the regulations in place today, there is no reason not to bathe at the site, famous for its medicinal properties, we are left with questions regarding the Health Ministry's conduct in the case. How did it happen that the ministry concealed from the public a closure order it had issued for one of the most popular hot springs resorts in Israel, after ministry experts ruled that the facility "endangers public health and poses an immediate hazard to the public"? Why didn't the ministry act to implement the closure order? Why did its representatives inform the president of the Nazareth Magistrate's Court, Tawfic Kteily, that they agreed to a "blanket gag order" on the grievous findings concerning the water quality at Hamat Gader and on the very existence of the closure order?

At the beginning of this month, Dr. Michal Cohen-Dar, the northern district physician at the Health Ministry, issued a closure order for the Hamat Gader hot springs resort in the southern Golan Heights, which draws 400,000 visitors annually. Haaretz reported the matter last Monday, after Judge Kteily consented last Sunday to the paper's demand that he lift the gag order imposed at Hamat Gader's request.

The judge also accepted a new agreement signed by the Health Ministry and Hamat Gader's management. According to the agreement, the closure order is null and void, and the Health Ministry accepts Hamat Gader's position on the standard for its water quality: From hereon the water will be tested according to the less stringent standard for bathing beaches, instead of the standard for swimming pools that the Healthy Ministry had used for years.

Representatives for Hamat Gader say that, on the basis of the beach standard, there has never been any problem with the water quality. They also claim that these hot springs have medicinal properties; the Health Ministry tests were performed in violation of the law, thereby leading to the "abnormal results"; there was no basis for the closure order imposed on the facility; and they do not know of a single case of anyone getting sick because of the water in the 28 years the facility has been in operation. Furthermore, Hamat Gader has installed a cutting-edge water purification system.

However, the agreements between the Health Ministry and Hamat Gader do not nullify the tough questions arising from the performance of the senior officials of the Health Ministry beginning on November 4, when its northern district experts still thought Hamat Gader ought to be subjected to the same standard as swimming pools. Based on that standard, they claimed that Hamat Gader visitors were allegedly bathing in "polluted water ... that does not even meet the standards of an ordinary water park"; that laboratory tests found abnormally high levels of pathogenic bacteria, such as fecal coliform; and that the water was found to be so fetid that it posed a threat to public health. The ministry's experts claimed vociferously that "the water is a soup of pathogenic bacteria ... far above the desired and acceptable levels."

If the Health Ministry officials were confident in their stance, then their conduct in the matter can only be described as betrayal of the public's trust and of the ministry's most fundamental duty - to safeguard the public's health. The concealment of real-time information from the public about inferior and dangerous water quality at Hamat Gader (according to the ministry's experts), and the consent of Health Ministry representatives to imposing a blanket gag order on the case, lead to the conclusion that some Health Ministry employees are not fit to continue in their positions.

During last Sunday's court hearing in Nazareth on Haaretz's request for a lifting of the gag order, the Health Ministry's attorney asked that the following sentence be taken down for the record: "We said from the start that the public has the right to know, and we accept the court's proposal to lift the gag order." However, anyone who witnessed the hours of feverish negotiations in the court's corridors between representatives of the Health Ministry and Hamat Gader on an agreement on the water testing standard for the hot springs ,could have received the impression that both sides were eager to reach an agreement even before the hearing on Haaretz's request to lift the gag order.

Indeed, the top brass at the Health Ministry had good reason to have the tough questions on this matter buried in the archives of sealed cases at the Nazareth Magistrate's Court. There is the question regarding the degree to which senior ministry officials in the northern district and in Jerusalem are committed to safeguarding public health; the question regarding the the manner and timing of the ministry's decision to accede (or capitulate?) to Hamat Gader's demands - or else, whether the ministry erred in the matter of the testing standard and accepted Hamat Gader's position too late. There is also the question of the professionalism of ministry officials when it comes to testing bathing facilities - whether they were wrong when they found pollution that might spread serious disease, or wrongly made a decision that could cause innocent businesses severe damage.