Tel Aviv Light Rail Work on Hold After Graves Unearthed at Construction Site

Ultra-Orthodox activists lay down on the ground to protect the graves with their bodies, but police removed them from the area

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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Graves, presumably containing human remains, discovered during work on the light rail in Tel Aviv, August 26, 2020.
Graves, presumably containing human remains, discovered during work on the light rail in Tel Aviv, August 26, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

Graves, presumably containing human remains, were discovered during work on the light rail in Tel Aviv.

The graves were found last week during a survey conducted before excavations of the planned Purple Line began. Since then, the Israel Antiquities Authority has been conducting a salvage dig at the site, which is on Menachem Ben Saruq Street, near Ibn Gabirol and Arlosoroff streets. The light rail work is on hold until the authority allows it to resume.

The current assumption is that the remains are not of Jews. An official from the Religious Services Ministry came to examine the dig Wednesday.

For the past few days, members of Atra Kadisha, an ultra-Orthodox organization that works to protect graves, have come to the site to protest the work. Wednesday morning, some of them lay down on the ground to protect the graves with their bodies. Police removed them from the construction area.

IAI is working to uncover the graves without opening them. IAI officials said they have uncovered findings from as early as the Hellenistic period (which began in 323 B.C.E.) and as late as the Ottoman period (1700-1900), and the dates of the graves have not been determined. The Arab village of Sumail was located on that site from the second half of the 19th century until 1947.

Members of Atra Kadisha, an ultra-Orthodox organization that works to protect graves, at the site, August 26, 2020.

David Shmidel, a rabbi with Atra Kadisha, said the organization learned about the graves at the end of last week. “We know they are old graves, but don’t know much more than that,” he said. “I assume we’ll keep coming here.”

In recent years, he said, his group has reached arrangements at almost every development site in Israel to avoid harming graves. “In this case, they didn’t even talk to us.

“In most cases, we don’t know who the graves belonged to, but we mainly try to ensure that the graves are left in place and try to find all kinds of ways to compensate the developer, so everyone ends up happy,” he added.

The IAI said it informed the Religious Services Ministry, as required by law.

In July, the light-rail work uncovered a 19th-century well in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood whose historic and architectural value had previously been unknown. Some of the structure was destroyed during the work, but the municipality is exploring the possibility of preserving it.

Alon Shavit, an archaeologist with expertise in the Tel Aviv area, said there are dozens of archaeological sites in the city, including several where humans lived. The latter include the Jaffa Tell, Tel Qasile (where the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is), Tel Qudadi (near the Reading bus terminal) and Tel Gerisa (near the city’s border with Ramat Gan).

“Between those sites are dozens of places like this one on Ben Saruq Street,” he added. Most are agricultural, but some have graves.

A member of Atra Kadisha confronting a police at the site, August 26, 2020.

“In this area, people generally lived by agriculture, with a connection to bigger settlements in the region,” he explained. “Even though we’re near the Yarkon River, urban settlements didn’t develop in the Tel Aviv area.”

Several digs have been conducted in the Tel Aviv area, with the last being three years ago, Shavit said. These digs produced findings similar to those of the Antiquities Authority’s current salvage dig in that they came from many different periods spanning more than 1,000 years.

“It’s hard to give these findings a clear interpretation,” he said. “It’s a bit difficult to understand what exactly was here. It’s very early to be analyzing the current dig.

“The Ottoman finds are also somewhat extent, because they’re a product of Sumail, and it’s possible that they also include findings from the 20th century. Some are from the start of the modern era, and they could definitely be from the 20th century. In the dig three years ago, the most significant portion of the finds actually did come from the start of the modern era, on both sides of 1900,” he added.

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