Due to ultra-Orthodox Pressure, Israel Nixes Excavation of Ancient Jerusalem Graves at Site Slated for Housing

Antiques Authority forced to leave site after Shas leader Arye Dery raised issue with Netanyahu, who ordered that work be stopped.

An archive photo of construction in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo.
Daniel Bar On

Under pressure from the ultra-Orthodox Knesset factions, the Israel Antiquities Authority on Tuesday stopped its excavation of ancient burial caves in an area slated for a new residential neighborhood in south Jerusalem. The caves were discovered in the neighborhood of Gilo, in an area where 708 apartments are to be built, about half of them for ultra-Orthodox families.

The housing plan in an area known as Gilo Slopes West has come under fire from the United States administration due to its location over the pre-1967 border.

About 115 grave shafts have been found so far in the area slated for construction. The antiquities authority believes that most of the graves are empty and have been robbed. On Tuesday, authority personnel came to the site to work, and a few dozen ultra-Orthodox members of the group known as Atra Kadisha came to protest. The antiquities authority personnel then collected their equipment and left the site.

Earlier this week Shas chairman MK Arye Dery raised the issue with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seeking to stop the work over concerns that graves at the site would be desecrated.

Dery asked Netanyahu to instruct Jerusalem Affairs and Heritage Minister Zeev Elkin to stop the work until a solution could be found that conforms to Jewish law and would not desecrate the graves. He also raised the issue at a meeting of coalition faction heads.

On Sunday, Shas reported that Netanyahu had granted Dery’s request.

Out of the 708 apartments, 354 have been allocated to ultra-Orthodox associations. According to ultra-Orthodox sources, a compromise was suggested by which the developers would forego the apartments on the first floor and the buildings would be built on pillars, which is an acceptable solution under Jewish law. The developers reportedly agreed to the idea, on condition that they be compensated by the Construction Ministry. The Construction Ministry meanwhile has refused to compensate the developers.

According to officials familiar with the details, the antiquities authority decided to leave the site Tuesday due to Dery’s request from Netanyahu, which led to the latter ordering that work be stopped in an attempt to reach a compromise.

“I asked Atra Kadisha to inform the ultra-Orthodox purchasers that they were going to be living above graves,” Ofer Ayoubi, the head of Gilo’s community administration, said. “I will make every effort not to hurt the feelings of others, and at the same time to allow construction in Gilo to continue.”

Rabbi Uri Regev, director of Hiddush, a non-profit group that promotes freedom and equality in Israel, said: “In less than one year that this government has been in existence, Arye Dery has turned into the Neturei Karta of the cabinet,” referring to an extremist ultra-Orthodox group. “He is leading fights over the Sabbath, trying to tighten kashrut laws, and now he’s starting a fight over graves. It’s hard to remember when there was another minister spoiling for religious war and fighting among Jews, a minister who has done so much to make Jews hate Judaism.

“It’s also hard not to be persuaded that the bones of the dead interest Dery more than a solution to housing problems and the high cost of living of the people who are invisible, whom he pledged to care for. It is hard not to see the new war over the graves that Dery initiated as a declaration of intent on the zealous and ignorant way in which he plans on managing the Interior Ministry, and the damage he will cause Israeli society if this ministry is indeed placed under his responsibility.”