A dispute over work on Shabbat on Israel Railways’ projects threatens to derail not only trains across the country but also Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.
The dispute over Shabbat work for the second weekend in a row erupted after United Torah Judaism’s representatives on a committee, formed to assess which transportation projects could be completed on the Sabbath, permitted none.
Netanyahu blamed the crisis on Transportation Minister Israel Katz, whose political fate was up in the air at press time Saturday night. Likud sources said there was a good chance the prime minister could decide to fire Katz, a former close ally.
“This unnecessary crisis was initiated by Katz in order to harm Netanyahu’s relationship with the haredi [ultra-Orthodox] community or alternatively to harm the prime minister’s image in the general public,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement Saturday night.
The statement said there was no reason for the work to be performed on Shabbat in the first place and that it could have been done at another time without hurting the religious population or public transportation users, including soldiers on their way to and from bases.
“Israel Katz is holding the passengers and soldiers hostage in the artificial crisis he initiated after he failed to take over institutions in the Likud,” Netanyahu’s office said. “The prime minister is shocked by Katz’s cynical harm to the passengers and soldiers, and he is doing everything possible to minimize the damage.”
But Katz’s associates said it was Netanyahu who initiated the crisis, because he was looking for an excuse to fire him. He kept mum, not releasing any official statements over the weekend.
Allies of Katz in the Likud began efforts to prevent his firing.
Labor and Social Services Minister Haim Katz (no relation) and coalition chairman David Bitan both volunteered to mediate between Netanyahu and Katz.
Opposition parties said the prime minister is to blame.
They held protests outside the Tel Aviv Savidor Central Railway Station and operated hotlines to help passengers get where they needed to go.
In a joint statement, the IDF and the Defense Ministry said they would operate bus services for soldiers in place of the regular train service. Dozens of buses will ferry soldiers between northern and central Israel in both directions, the statement said.
To run that service, 100 government workers ended up working on Shabbat, more than would have worked on the three projects Israel Railways said were the most necessary to be completed on the day of rest. Channel 2 reported that the replacement transportation projects cost millions of shekels.
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On petitioned the High Court of Justice for an injunction requiring the reinstatement of train service and railway work on Shabbat.
The court convened on Shabbat to turn down Gal-On’s request but said a more formal response would be delivered Monday.
“Netanyahu initiated the crisis in order to settle a score with Katz,” said Zionist Union MK Shelly Yacimovich. “The tragedy is that the citizens of Israel are pawns in a cynical political game in Netanyahu’s mad pursuit to gain more and more power and control.”
Yesh Atid opened an online website in order to help soldiers and the elderly reach their destinations after Shabbat.
The new website aims to connect volunteers with soldiers, elderly citizens and other people who rely on public transportation to reach their destination, according to Yesh Atid’s spokesman.
In order to run this service, the party set up a special operations room in their headquarters with volunteers connecting those who wish to help and those who need a ride.
The party’s statement said “We heard the voices of the citizens and of the soldiers that don’t know how they will manage to reach their destination on Sunday morning and we decided to take action for them.
It can’t be that a citizen needs to cancel a work day, or the elderly will not have a way to be mobile or a soldier will need to shorten the duration of his visit home with his parents and family, due to political arguments within the government.”
A source from the state-owned Israel Railways said some 20 work permits defined as essential were prepared for this Shabbat.
“Due to the cessation of work for development and upgrading, a few minutes before Shabbat, technical teams that deal with the disassembly of part of the railway were forced to leave their work places without being able to restore the conditions to their previous state,” a statement from Israel Railways said.
“Some of the work will be done following Shabbat. Therefore, significant changes on the train routes will occur on Saturday night and Sunday.”
There will be no service between Tel Aviv and Haifa in either direction until train traffic returns to a normal schedule at 7 p.m. on Sunday, Israel Railways said.
All trains from the North will begin and end their journeys only as far south as Binyamina, while trains from the South will begin and end their journeys only as far north as Tel Aviv Savidor – aside from the Hod Hasharon-Beersheba line, which will travel as planned.
More details about individual train lines are available on the Israel Railways website and smartphone application. The company recommended that members of the public continually check these portals for updates, as the schedule may change.
To ensure that soldiers arrive to their bases, the IDF is operating shuttles where train service has been disbanded. The number of buses heading to the South, directly to Beersheba and Training Base City, is also being increased. In addition, more buses will be running in the areas between Tel Aviv Savidor and Haifa.
Between Tel Aviv and Haifa, Egged is adding about 50 buses on the relevant lines from Saturday night through Sunday, the company said. Egged traffic officials stressed their belief that they will be able to meet the high demand on a critical travel route in the country.
“Egged traffic inspectors will work this evening at the main transport hubs and central stations beginning at the end of Shabbat, in order to facilitate and carry out operations and ensure that the plans occur as smoothly as possible,” Egged spokesman Ron Ratner said on Saturday night. “The public is requested to demonstrate composure and patience on the queues that are expected at the transport hubs.”
On Sunday, additional buses are scheduled to operate from 6:30 a.m. to noon, to supplement the service the IDF normally provides for soldiers on that day, when many soldiers return to their bases.Soldiers interested in further information can call the IDF’s Transport Center at (03) 972- 5035 and (03) 972-5481.Yaakov Lappin contributed to this report.
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