Ancient Graves Discovered Outside Jerusalem Spark Battle Over Roadworks

Ultra-Orthodox activists protest removal of skeletons, dismantling of 1,900-year-old graves – despite the fact they're probably not Jewish

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Security guard evacuate protesters from an archaeological site in Motza, Jerusalem, August 2020.
Security guard evacuate protesters from an archaeological site in Motza, Jerusalem, August 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The discovery of ancient graves outside Jerusalem has led to a fight that threatens the construction of the new main road entrance to Jerusalem.

Archaeologists discovered the graves during an excavation ahead of the paving of a new route from Motza, a suburb north-west of Jerusalem, to the center of the city. They believe they were part of a Roman colonial settlement dating back 1,900 years. This would mean the graves did not belong to Jews, who did not live in this area after the destruction of the Second Temple.

The Israel Antiquities Authority, funded by Israel's road and infrastructure authority, Netivei Israel, oversaw the dig along Route 16. The new major artery is slated to run from Motza through two tunnels and over two bridges to the vicinity of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center. About three years ago, a large Neolithic city discovered during construction of the highway was covered over to enable continuation of the road.

The archaeological dig where the graves were found in Motza, Jerusalem, August 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Despite assessments that the graves are not Jewish, ultra-Orthodox Jews have begun demonstrating at the site, blocking construction vehicles and disrupting roadworks. The protesters, from Jerusalem and the nearby city of Beit Shemesh, claim the site contains Jewish graves and that the dig is removing skeletons and dismantling graves. The demonstrations have held up roadworks for several days.

Last week, demonstrators confronted police and private security guards called in by the contractors several times. On Thursday, a police officer was filmed pushing and knocking over a demonstrator, who had his back turned to him, apparently for no reason. The police’s internal investigations division launched an inquiry after the video was released on the website of the ultra-Orthodox news outlet Kikar Hashabbat. "This behavior does not befit any police officer, who is expected to act professionally in line with organizational rules and values," the police commented.

In another incident this week, police stopped protesters in a car and prevented them from approaching the dig site. The police ordered the demonstrators to return to Jerusalem, accompanied the vehicle and ordered the passengers to disperse and return to their homes.

Shimon Hoffman of Atra Kadisha, a Haredi organization that seeks to protect ancient graves, said there had been some successful cases of cooperation during the project. “They did what was needed to conserve graves and everything was okay,” he said. “They reversed course in the last part of the project and started digging up skeletons and ignored the remaining graves.” Hoffman insisted that it was not Atra Kadisha that sent the protesters, but rather Haredi rabbis from Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.

Two weeks ago, graves, presumably containing human remains, were discovered during work on the light rail in Tel Aviv.

The graves were found during a survey conducted before excavations of the planned Purple Line began. A source involved in the excavations told Haaretz that these graves were also most likely not Jewish. Protesters also held demonstrations at this site last week, including Atra Kadisha members. Some of them laid across graves to prevent damage. They were removed by police.

A police officer evacuates a protester from an archaeological site where graves were found in Motza, Jerusalem, August 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

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