Netanyahu Orders Rethink on Rocket-proof Ashkelon ER

Cabinet approved relocation of ER due to ultra-Orthodox objections after ancient burial grounds were discovered under original site.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed officials to reevaluate Sunday's controversial cabinet decision to relocate the planned construction of a bomb-proof emergency room for the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon due to ultra-Orthodox objections after ancient burial grounds were discovered under the original site.

Netanyahu instructed the director general of his office, Eyal Gabai, to head a team that will carry out the reevaluation of the decision.

After arriving in Washington yesterday, Netanyahu met with a team of advisers and discussed the public reaction to the decision to change the original location of the building - a move that would delay construction and add considerably to its cost. The prime minister told his advisers that they need to find a solution that would preserve the sanctity of the dead, but also ensure the security of patients at the Barzilai Medical Center. The evaluation team will present its recommendations to Netanyahu after Passover.

"Until the recommendations are presented nothing will be changed on the ground," the Prime Minister's Bureau said in a statement on Monday.

Netanyahu's decision to set up a panel to reevaluate the situation does not affect the cabinet's decision calling for an examination of the disputed burial ground on which the bomb-proof emergency ward was to have been constructed. If within the month allotted for the examination it is concluded that the graves belong to Jews, then the emergency room will be built in the new location, without any need for further cabinet deliberations.

Criticism of the cabinet's decision was stepped up Monday, especially over the fact that the change would make the project costlier by at least NIS 120 million.

Labor Party chairman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who voted in the cabinet against the proposed change, publicly supported Netanyahu's decision to reevaluate the decision. "The decision to move the emergency room of the Barzilai Medical Center because of the ancient burial ground should be brought before the cabinet for renewed discussion. It may be possible to find a way of altering this decision. It is a mistaken decision, and it was right that the prime minister decided to allow a reevaluation," Barak said in a statement.

Meretz and Kadima have initiated a special session in the Knesset, which is already on spring break, to discuss the issue. Kadima MK Yohanan Plesner said that "Kadima considers the government decision a watershed in terms of the public's confidence in the prime minister and his ministers, and in their ability to run the country. Kadima will continue to pressure Netanyahu until he backs down from his commitment to protect pagan burial grounds at the expense of [medical] treatment for the residents of the south."

Opposition head Tzipi Livni called Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin yesterday and informed him of the decision in Kadima to joint the efforts of city residents against the government decision.

Ashkelon citizens have petitioned the Supreme Court against the decision, asking that the court orders the state to move the graves that were found and begin building the emergency room according to the original plans. Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch is expected to set a date for deliberations on the matter in the near future.

Earlier this week, a copy of the resignation letter of Health Ministry director general Dr. Eitan Hai-Am was sent to the State Comptroller's Office. The letter will serve as yet another piece of evidence in the investigation under way into allegations that Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman sought to interfere with the tender for the establishment of a hospital in Ashdod.

One of the allegations by health officials is that Litzman's association with the Refua veYeshua non-government organization, which belongs to the Gur Hasidim, a partner in one of the groups participating in the tender - and is currently setting up an emergency ward in east Ashdod - affected the deputy minister's decision on the Barzilai Medical Center. Essentially the health officials claim there is a conflict of interest since the two hospitals will compete for the patronage of the same population in southern Israel.

The State Comptroller's office said that "various documents were received on the issue."

Dr. Hai-Am resigned Monday following Sunday's cabinet decision. He had presented opposition to such a move by the professionals at his ministry to the cabinet, a stance contrary to that of Litzman. The outgoing director general warned the cabinet that moving the structure would delay the treatment of the injured because of the distance from operation theaters and x-ray facilities at the hospital, and risk their lives at times of emergency.

Litzman announced that the candidate for replacing Hai-Am is Dr. Roni Gamso, deputy director general at Ichilov Hospital - a gynecologist by specialty. Gamso met with Litzman and Hai-Am yesterday, and his appointment is conditional on cabinet approval.

The Israel Medical Association called on Hai-Am to withdraw his letter of resignation after Netanyahu's announcement that the cabinet decision would be reevaluated. The IMA intends to petition the Supreme Court against the cabinet decision next week.