Decision to Move Rocket-resistant Ashkelon ER May Be Illegal

Health Ministry source: Gov't prefers the dead over living patients; director general resigns over decision.

By a single vote, the cabinet approved Sunday the demand of Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) to move the planned bomb-proof emergency room of Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, after ancient burial grounds were discovered in the original site.

Building the emergency room elsewhere in the hospital complex will cost an extra NIS 120 million and delay completion by two years. In response to the decision, Dr. Eitan Hai-Am, director general of the Health Ministry, resigned, saying that the decision "is likely to place lives at risk."

The decision was heavily criticized and the Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying that professional evaluations of the burial grounds will take place over the coming month, "and if it emerges that the graves do not belong to Jews, the matter will be returned to the cabinet for more discussions."

Critics of the decision noted that in addition to the extra cost, the delay in the construction of a bomb-proof medical ward when security considerations in the area near the Gaza Strip remain high, will create logistical problems in case of emergencies.

Moreover, the critics argued, the government was motivated in its decision by keeping the coalition together, and not the security and health of the citizens of the country.

The controversial decision was approved by 11-10, with two abstentions. In addition to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, supporting the decision were Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Benny Begin.

Opposing the decision were a number of Labor ministers, as well as Likud ministers Yuli Edelstein, Yossi Peled, Michael Eitan, Dan Meridor, Gideon Sa'ar, and Limor Livnat.

Abstaining were Stas Misezhnikov and Yitzhak Aharonovitch, both of Yisrael Beiteinu.

Lieberman's support for Litzman seemed to go opposite the secular line his Yisrael Beiteinu party has followed during its election campaign as well as the coalition agreement between the party and Likud on the setting up of a bomb-proof emergency room at Barzilai Medical Center.

Sources in Yisrael Beitenu denied that there was a political deal with UTJ for support in the partnership agreement legislation, which was approved several weeks ago.

In order to carry out its decision, the cabinet approved an additional NIS 90 million to the hospital, beyond the NIS 160 million already allotted in the original plan.

Half the sum will be provided by the Finance Ministry and the rest from the Health Ministry, which will draw the sum from non-governmental sources. In addition, NIS 30 million will be allotted for the temporary reinforcement of older hospital structures.

An anonymous donor had pledged NIS 40 million to build the originally planned building at Barzilai, but issued a statement saying it would have to reconsider its donation following the decision.

Haaretz learned that in recent days initial plans for the building of the structure in a different part of the hospital complex have been completed. According to the new plans, construction of the emergency ward will begin in October and will be completed in August 2014. The original plan called for completion by 2011.

A senior source in the Health Ministry said "this is a black day in which the government prefers the dead over the living patients. The residents of the south will suffer as a result of this strange decision, and the Health Ministry is losing a reliable and ethical director general."

Hai-Am, the outgoing director general, participated in the cabinet meeting Sunday and presented the professional view at the ministry, which opposed Litzman. A short while after the decision, Hai-Am issued his resignation.

"The role of the director general is to carry out the decisions of the government of Israel and the decisions of the minister in charge. But if a decision is made that is contrary to my position, it is my duty to resign," Hai-Am told Haaretz.