Netanyahu to Decide Over Ashkelon Hospital ER Relocation

Latest approval to relocate ER, due to finding of graveyard beneath the site, provoked general criticism.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was authorized Sunday to be the final decision maker over the relocation of the emergency room at Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center, after several weeks of debate regarding the controversial affair.

Following a last minute move to add the request to the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu, who is also the official health minister, received the cabinet's approval to make the final decision, thus excluding Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) from the decision making process.

Netanyahu is expected to make his decision within the next few weeks.

Last month the cabinet approved relocating the emergency room at Ashkelon's main hospital due to the finding of a thought to be Jewish burial ground beneath the site.

Many government officials criticized Netanyahu's decision to find a new location for the Barzilai Hospital's emergency room, which in its current design allows protection against rockets, and Dr. Eitan Chai-Am, director general of Israel's Health Ministry, announced his resignation over the planned relocation.

Some critics accused Netanyahu of acquiescing to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox community, which was adamant about not building over the graveyard. The cost of moving the building site of the ER room is estimated at NIS 160 million.

The graveyard was discovered when Litzman attempted to add a new wing to the hospital located in Ashkelon. Once the gravesite was found at the original construction site, the Antiquities Authority confirmed the graves belonged to Jews, and put the project on indefinite hold.

The Finance Ministry says the high cost of moving the building site would be funded either with money designated for reinforcing other hospital departments or by siphoning money from various other government offices.

Earlier, a State Control Committee called on the cabinet to revoke its decision to relocate the planned bomb-proof emergency room and called on State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to look into the affair's various aspects and supervise the building.

The committee was also told by Health Ministry ombudsman Aryeh Paz that he recently gave the State Comptroller documents apparently linking Litzman's stand on the graves to his involvement in the tender to build a hospital in Ashdod. The planned Ashdod hospital would compete with Barzilai for patients in the south.

"The cabinet did not make the right decision," committee chair MK Yoel Hasson (Kadima) said at the end of the meeting. "The decision was tainted with irrelevant considerations that were not in the public's interest."

Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin called on the state comptroller to probe the discrimination against the Barzilai Medical Center compared to hospitals in the central region.

The committee urged the cabinet to see the Chief Rabbinate, which had ruled in the past that the graves found at the site could be moved, as the authority on the issue.

The graves' removal was delayed due to pressure by the Lithuanian ultra-Orthodox community, which Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism) belongs to.

The committee asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to disperse the task force formed by Prime Minister's Office director general Eyal Gabai to examine the graves issue. They want Netanyahu to instead form a professional task force including a physician.

The Health Ministry's outgoing director general, Dr. Eitan Hai-Am, warned that moving the emergency room to the hospital's northern parking lot could endanger lives.