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Construction of an urgently needed fortified and expanded emergency department at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon will begin immediately after years of delay, despite strong opposition by Deputy Health Minister Ya'acov Litzman, a United Torah Judaism MK who objects to the relocation of graves found at the site. Litzman told the committee on Tuesday that the hospital facility should be built on the parking lot, but the committee voted down his proposal.
During the Cast Lead campaign in Gaza, the hospital grounds were hit by at least one Grad rocket, causing great anxiety and posing a threat to patients and staffers, for whom there are currently no fortified areas at the center. Construction has been delayed for five years by the haredi Atra Kadisha organization, which lobbies to protect Jewish graves.
Litzman told The Jerusalem Post after the committee meeting that his ministry would be willing to cover the extra costs of planning the construction on the parking lot and maintained that the graves - registered during the British Mandate as an archeological site, contained the bones of Jews. "We have proof," he said, but did not give any details.
But the Post obtained an official document of the Israel Antiquities Authority stating that the archeological site was in fact clearly Byzantine and not Jewish, as the structures had rounded roofs and human and animal images as well as crosses, with the skeletons buried in decorated lead coffins that were clearly not in accordance with ancient Jewish law or culture. According to Jewish law, the remains of Jews cannot easily be moved elsewhere, but there is no such prohibition regarding the bones of non-Jews.
The hospital spokeswoman said its officials were gratified by the Knesset committee decision. "Deputy-minister Litzman is a very intelligent and wise man. We are sorry that he opposed the site for the emergency department. He promises the ministry will cover the extra expenses of planning the new site, but who says he will still be minister when it is built, and [that] the ministry will still be willing to pay for it?"
The emergency department, she said, would safely serve an area containing half a million Israelis.
Litzman said that when authorities in Europe and elsewhere insist that they need to move Jewish cemeteries to other sites, "we would make a big fuss and oppose it. So why does no one oppose moving the graves near the hospital?"
He said that if Barzilai was able to wait five years for the construction, it could wait a few more. Litzman said he wanted to avoid additional demonstrations by haredim against relocating the graves and that prohibiting construction over the graves was approved by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert.
Last January, the two chief rabbis of Israel issued a ruling that protecting Jews from Hamas rockets and missiles was more important than respected the rest of the dead. The rabbis reasoned that "since the digging is aimed at saving lives, and since there is a doubt whether the bones are Jewish, building the underground room takes precedence over not disturbing the deceased." The Chief Rabbinate's governing council ratified their decision.
Barzilai has for years been holding the $40 million in donations needed to carry out the project, but had been unable to continue its infrastructure work because of Atra Kadisha's protests.