Ministry fails again to close Hamat Gader [pg. 8]

In a ping-pong game that has frustrated Health Ministry officials who claim the thermo-mineral water pools at Hamat Gader - one of the country's most popular tourist sites - are infected, the Nazareth District Court for the third time in six months overruled a ministry closure order on Thursday morning. The ministry said that lab tests of water from the pools, conducted by the Haifa District Health Office, showed excessively high levels of E. coli bacteria and issued a closure order of the pools on the eve of the last day of Pessah. But the court, this time presided over by a different judge - overturned the ministry order and refused to have the Hamat Gader facility closed down. "If it were water from the Mediterranean Sea with such high bacteriological counts, we would close it down immediately," ministry sources said, "but somehow Hamat Gader always manages to get our orders overturned." The ministry said on the eve of the holiday that Hamat Gader's pools were unfit for bathing and anyone who used them was liable to endanger his or her health. This enraged the tourist site, which has had 14-million visitors since it opened nearly 28 years ago. "Nothing has happened to any of them," argued Hamat Gader managing director Dani Levinstein. Last November, the ministry issued its first order to close the pools after conducting bacteriological tests. But the Nazareth court reversed the order, criticizing the ministry for allegedly failing to prove its claims of danger; the pools, the judge said, should be judged according to standards for thermo-mineral water and not swimming pools. In February, the ministry conducted tests for a second time, and reached the same conclusion it had three months before. But the court again reversed the order. Hamat Gader decided to sue the ministry for NIS 15 million for damages. The ministry spokeswoman said Thursday that its sole interest was protecting public health and that it would continue to do so.