Knesset c’tee to PM: Add doctors to Barzilai task force

People will die because of Litzman’s decision to move Ashkelon ER, Israel Medical Association warns.

barzilai hospital ashkelon 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
barzilai hospital ashkelon 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Knesset State Control Committee on Wednesday urgently called on Prime Minister (and official health minister) Binyamin Netanyahu to dismantle the task force his office appointed to recommend ways to resolve the dispute over where to build a reinforced emergency department in Ashkelon’s Barzilai Medical Center.
The lawmakers demanded that physicians be named to the body.
Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, a Gur hassid from United Torah Judaism, had threatened to resign his post if the facility is not built on a distant parking lot instead of the nearby plot chosen four years ago but found to have ancient bones that all but Litzman and his UTJ party agree are skeletons of pagans. The parking lot is about 400 meters away and would require transporting patients through tunnels to surgical theaters and wards.
Health Ministry director-general Dr. Eitan Hai-Am, whom Litzman personally appointed eight months ago, has resigned in protest against the deputy minister’s policy. Hai-Am, a respected medical administrator and former director-general of Beersheba’s Soroka University Medical Center, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that he doesn’t intend to return to the ministry even if a decision is made to build the ER department on the originally planned site. But he said he did not think a task force with its current makeup could change Litzman’s plans.
An adviser to the Netanyahu-appointed team, which includes no physicians, is Rabbi David Shmidl, head of the extreme haredi Atra Kadisha organization that campaigns around the country for halting construction projects if “Jewish bones” are found and who is the force behind Litzman’s demands.
At a pre-Pessah toast for Health Ministry employees on Wednesday, Hai-Am – who is due to be replaced in a month by Ichilov Hospital director-general Dr. Ronnie Gamzu – received a rousing ovation from several hundred staffers, while Litzman got only a tepid reception.
Hai-Am asked them to receive Gamzu cordially and said he felt he had to leave because of “disagreements” with Litzman, especially over the skeleton affair.
Litzman recalled that a year ago, when taking office, he promised to “create upheaval” in the ministry, and declared that he had kept his word. His public affairs officer had previously complained about meager news stories about the ministry, the deputy minister said, and now there is much more coverage.
“I have put the ministry on the map,” Litzman boasted, saying he had shown he was open-minded by appointing a “Hashomer Hatzair [left-wing secular] kibbutznik” as director-general rather than a haredi physician.
Then Litzman looked at the many low-paid women employees in the audience and said their salaries – which entitled 30 percent of them to get income supplements from the state – was “a crime” and promised to deal with that problem.
State Control Committee chairman Yoel Hasson (Kadima) said in his committee session that the emergency department fortified against Gazan rockets must be built in the fastest and least expensive way possible. In addition, it must be ensured that the distance between it and the main building is not unnecessarily long. In any case, the solution must be decided by professionals, Hasson said.
For years, there was no money for the project, according to the Treasury, which eventually agreed to supplement a private donation from the US. But the discovery of the skeletons – pagan, according to the Antiquities Authority, and not Jewish, as Litzman claims – put the project on hold.
Changing the site and starting the planning from scratch would cost the ministry at least NIS 136 million more than budgeted and add years of delays, while Ashkelon has for years been a target of Gaza rockets. Expending these funds will mean the ministry has much less money to spend on the infrastructure and development of other government hospitals.
Hasson said: “We saw a decision that instead of being professional was dealt with out of pure political considerations and therefore was mishandled.”
His committee demanded that the Chief Rabbinate, which has already stated that according to Jewish law, Jewish or non-Jewish bones could be reinterred elsewhere to make room for a livesaving ER, “must play a decisive role here.”
He asked State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, who did not speak, to follow the case closely.
Hai-Am, who addressed the committee, said: “We won’t be able to build a children’s hospital at Barzilai that was supposed to be built after the ER... I told [Litzman] that I wouldn’t agree to take a single shekel from health for something so unnecessary [as relocating the ER]. I would have to make cuts, and I am unwilling to do so.”
Shas MK Haim Amsalem said he had asked rabbis about the issue, “and they said that moving the graves is the most respectful way to handle the situation. Graves that harm the public are moved.”
Commenting on assertions that haredi Jerusalem neighborhoods have all been built over old graves, UTJ MK Moshe Gafni countered that the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway was moved for the grave of a sheikh.
Dr. Leonid Eidelman, chairman of the Israel Medical Association, which held a demonstration by doctors opposite the Knesset building against Litzman’s plans, charged that “people will die because of this decision. All of you will be responsible for all the people who will die... When they are under fire, no one will be able to come in and out. This is a matter of life and death.”
The Movement for Quality Government on Wednesday petitioned the High Court of Justice to add medical and security experts and representatives of the public to the task force.
The petition was based on an interview given by Litzman adviser Menachem Gshayev, on Israel Radio’s Hakol Diburim(It’s All Talk) program on Tuesday. He said that the task force membersincluded Prime Minister’s Office director Eyal Gabbai, Gshayev, Shmidland Shuka Dorfman, director-general of the Antiquities Authority.
Attorneys Eliad Shraga and Zroya Meidad-Luzon wrote in their petitionthat “the composition of the committee contradicts the cabinetdecision, since it does not include medical, security and publicrepresentatives who are obviously ‘relevant.’”
The petitioners also asked the court for an interim injunction toprevent the committee from beginning its deliberations while thepetition was being heard.
Dan Izenberg contributed to this report.