State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss will look into complaints he received last week regarding Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman’s initiative – approved formally by the cabinet on Sunday – to relocate Barzilai Medical Center’s planned reinforced emergency room to a more distant site because the original site contains ancient graves reportedly belonging to pagans or Christians.
Ashkelon’s hospital has been targeted by terrorist rockets from Gaza more than once, endangering the patients, their family members and staff. The change in plans aroused wide opposition among MKs, medical professionals and public organizations, who said the government had a policy of “necrophilia.”
The plan passed the cabinet Sunday by a vote of 11-10. The government also allocated NIS 30 million to immediately start building an “envelope” around the existing emergency room, to try to protect it against missiles and rockets.
The State Comptroller’s Office would not say who complained or what Lindenstrauss planned to do. However, in the past, the comptroller has produced critical reports in real time in an effort to nip objectionable, wasteful projects in the bud before they were implemented.
No comment was available from Litzman.
To protest Sunday’s decision, which will boost costs of the project by some NIS 135 million, cause years of delays due to new planning needs and lead to the much-needed structure being relatively far from the main hospital building, Health Ministry Director-General Dr. Eitan Hai-Am resigned on the spot.
Hai-Am, a respected medical administrator who was appointed by Litzman about half a year ago, previously served as a key Clalit Health Services administrator and director-general of Soroka University Medical Center in Beersheba.
He will remain at his post for a short time until the cabinet approves his replacement.
Without missing a beat, Litzman – who told Prime Minister and Health Minister Binyamin Netanyahu he would resign if the vote did not go his way – immediately announced his choice to replace Hai-Am: Dr. Ronni Gamzu, director-general of the Ichilov Hospital of the Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center.
Gamzu, a gynecologist by training, studied medicine at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and at Tel Aviv University’s Sackler Medical Faculty, and also has a law degree.
Litzman, of United Torah Judaism, became the target of lobbying by the haredi Atra Kadisha organization that fights against the movement of human – especially Jewish – bones.
Litzman insists that the graves and bones belong to Jews from many centuries ago. But the Israel Antiquities Authority, which examined the graves, insists that there are clear signs that they belong to pagans or Christians and could be moved.
The Jerusalem Post has meanwhile learned that an American Jewish millionaire who had pledged millions of dollars to build the fortified emergency room over six years ago has grown impatient with the government and could decide to cancel her donation entirely.
If she withholds the money, the Treasury would have to pay the entire cost of the project.
MK Yoel Hasson, chairman of the Knesset State Control Committee, decided to convene his committee on Wednesday in an urgent session to discuss the government decision.
Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin strongly opposed Litzman’s plan and tried until the last minute to influence the cabinet.
“I am sorry Rabbi Litzman enshrines the dead at the expense of the living,” Vaknin declared.
Meretz MK Haim Oron of the opposition said: “This is a government with a fundamentalist agenda that dabbles in necrophilia. The time has come to leave the dead alone and to start counting the living. The border towns in the South are falling victim to considerations that are out of this world.”
The Kadima Party, which heads the opposition, charged that Netanyahu gave in to Litzman for political reasons and has thus exposed Ashkelon residents to the threats of Hamas terrorists.
Kadima MK Rachel Adato, a physician and lawyer by training, said that the government “prefers the dead and their representatives over the sick and their families. The decision is testimony to the fact that the lines between the Health and Religious Affairs ministries have been blurred.”
The Israel Medical Association reiterated its anger over Litzman’s position, arguing that the distance between the planned emergency room, surgical theaters, radiology and intensive care units would needlessly endanger patients in the event of attacks. It will also require the hiring of more staff to move the patients around, said IMA chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman.
Litzman’s proposed above-ground building would be smaller and less safe than the previously planned underground site, Eidelman said, adding that the extra expenses were an unnecessary waste of money that would come at the expense of other Health Ministry projects.
“It could cost lives of patients and endanger the medical staff. The construction has been delayed again as if there has never been a war in Israel,” the IMA chairman said.
Eidelman also bemoaned the resignation of Hai-Am, “whose professional rectitude did not allow him to go along with such damage to the health system.”
The Reform Movement in Israel issued a strong statement against the cabinet vote. Rabbi Gilad Kariv said that Litzman had “unfairly used Judaism to promote fanaticism and darkness” and “fooled the entire public,” causing the legitimate needs of residents of southern Israel to be ignored.
The union representing microbiologists and lab workers, headed by Asher
Goldschlager, called Hai-Am’s resignation “principled” and cited the
fact that other senior Health Ministry professionals strongly opposed
The outdoing director-general was also praised by MK Arye Eldad, a
physician by profession, who said the government decision was terribly
He noted that the bones “apparently belong to Philistines who died
2,000 years ago,” but that Hai-Am “wanted to sanctify the lives of
Israeli residents today.”