Top Transportation Official: Work During Shabbat Is Vital for Israel

Some 150,000 Israeli train commuters set to suffer as line connecting Tel Aviv to northern Israel remains closed due to political spat over work on the Sabbath.

Prime Minister Netanyahu and Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz on a train to Be'er Sheva, 2012.
Moti Milrod

Israel's top transportation official on Sunday rejected claims that infrastructure work on Israeli rail lines during Shabbat was the cause of a crisis that has left up to 150,000 Israeli commuters stranded.

The main line connecting Tel Aviv and the north remained closed on Sunday morning.

The central bus station in Haifa, September 4, 2016.
Gil Eliahu

Work conducted on the railways during Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, has provoked a political crisis in recent few days, with ultra-Orthodox parties demanding that all work be halted.

On Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the cancellation of all infrastructure work planned by Israel Railways for the weekend, sparking a political crisis between him and Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz.

The decision to halt the train lines on Saturday and Sunday also caused public uproar, highlighting political and societal tensions between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Hundreds attended protests across Israel on Saturday night.

Cars stuck in traffic on the Ayalon Highway, September 4, 2016.
Moti Milrod

ANALYSIS: In battle over Shabbat, Netanyahu takes public, ultra-Orthodox for a ride

Sunday morning, with heavy traffic reported across the nation and expected to continue until the evening, Transportation Ministry Director General Keren Turner defended the work and deflected criticism aimed at the ministry.

According to Turner, Israeli law has always permitted vital infrastructure work during Shabbat, and the ministry does not have the relevant authority to rescind work permits for such projects.

"If we don't have to, we don't work during Shabbat. But that has nothing to do with the ministry, the minister or myself," said Turner. "We met with the ultra-Orthodox and explained when and where we were planning to work, and the minister requested then that when possible, construction work not be conducted on Saturday," she said.

However, she added that despite political claims to the contrary, work has always been undertaken during Shabbat. Moreover, she said Transportation Minister Katz does not even have the authority to authorize or cancel scheduled work: "Only the Labor Minister has that authority," she said, referring to Haim Katz.

"Should I as a director general of the Transportation Ministry have the authority to decide what harms the public or not?" she asked. "For years, we've worked with the labor minister, [who understood that] it would harm a vital service to citizens [if there was no train] and therefore we got permits to work during Shabbat.

Lines outside at Haifa train station. September 4, 2016.
Gil Eliahu

"Israel's labor laws define what is considered a vital service to Israel's economy. Whoever doesn’t want us to work during Shabbat should work to change the law that enables it. Even this Saturday, government companies that are not the Transportation Ministry worked during Shabbat. For the country to function, it is permitted, under certain conditions, to work during the Sabbath," Turner said.

"Professionally, I'm dumbstruck that an entire country is going crazy today, even though nothing has changed in the way we've been working for years. It pains me to see this insanity and the damage it causes to the public," she concluded.

ANALYSIS: Israeli commuters pay the price for Netanyahu's capitulation to the Haredim

A long line of people waiting for a bus in Haifa after train lines were halted due to political pressure over rail repair on Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, September 3, 2016.
Rami Shllush

Some rail lines will remain shut until Sunday evening, Israel Railways said on Sunday. The line between Tel Aviv Savidor Central Station and Haifa's Hof Hacarmel Station will only resume at 7 P.M., prompting fears of traffic chaos in Tel Aviv. Other lines will resume earlier.

Netanyahu spoke with a number of Likud ministers and lawmakers on Saturday, and asked them whether they would support Yisrael Katz's dismissal. Netanyahu blames Katz for the rift with the ultra-Orthodox parties, in bid to destabilize the coalition. 

"Netanyahu has had it with Katz," a Likud source told Haaretz. He said the prime minister is attempting to determine whether firing Katz for the train crisis would damage him politically.

Haim Katz, also the social affairs minister, has publically announced he stands by the transportation minister, as has Deputy Housing Minister Jackie Levy. As of Saturday evening, no Likud minister or lawmaker had publicly declared support for Netanyahu in his campaign against Katz.

On Friday, Netanyahu spoke with leaders of the ultra-Orthodox parties. MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) said Yisrael Katz wasn't truthful and demanded that Netanyahu fire him. Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads UTJ, did not join Gafni's demand, but said that his spiritual leader, Rabbi Yaakov Aryeh Alter of Gur, instructed him to leave the government if Shabbat is desecrated.