PM defends Barzilai grave removal

Litzman says moving bones deemed anti-Semitic abroad; 25 arrested.

Haredi protest Barzilai 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Haredi protest Barzilai 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu defended moving pagan graves near Ashkelon's Barzilai Medical Center on Sunday morning, after Deputy Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman leveled a veiled accusation of anti-Semitism at authorities and construction of the hospital’s reinforced emergency department began.
25 haredi protesters were detained overnight Saturday and early Sunday as construction began under the close watch of large numbers of security forces, including anti-terror squads.
Some 30 haredi protesters from Jerusalem came to the hospital to protest moving the graves and recited psalms near the site.
The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced at 11:00 Sunday morning that it would be broadcasting live from the site where the graves are being moved, but Litzman quickly buried the plan. His office instructed the IAA to remove the video from its website.
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Atra Kadisha, an extreme haredi group that opposes the movement of bones and claims those near Barzilai belonged to Jews, is supported in this matter by Litzman, a Gur hassid, who demanded that the emergency department be built elsewhere.
Litzman was interviewed on Israel Radio Sunday, and hinted that his United Torah Judaism party was considering leaving the coalition. The deputy health minister said he would consult rabbis on UTJ's next step.
"We don't create crises after every disagreement," Litzman said. He also added that haredi rabbis did not tell their followers to protest. "If they call us, then we will go out and protest," he explained.
Litzman complained that "if a similar step had been taken abroad, Israelis would be saying that it was anti-Semitism!"
Litzman had persuaded the cabinet to oppose moving the graves, but after public outrage over the much greater expense, the longer delays and the unsuitability of the alternate site, Netanyahu (who is also formally health minister) held a re-vote, and the decision was changed.
At the beginning of Sunday's cabinet meeting, the prime minister addressed the events near the Barzilai hospital.
"The decision to build a new armored emergency room was made after the Second Lebanon war. The important haredi public may feel hurt because of it, but we reached the decision that this should be done," Netanyahu said.
"The greater good is what guides us. We take advice and try to reach conclusions as much as possible, but at the end, the government's decision is for the greater good," he said at the weekly meeting.
Unrest spreads to Jerusalem
Jerusalem police on Sunday morning reported that dozens of haredi men had begun lighting trash bins on fire and blocking roads in and around Shabbat Square in the capital's Mea Shearim neighborhood, in what appeared to be part of the growing response to construction work at Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon, that will see a number of tombs, believed to be of pagan origin, relocated.
Additionally, overturned trash bins and other debris could be seen scattered in piles on a number of roads throughout the large haredi enclave, and security forces were on the scene, attempting to restore order.
Israel Medical Association chairman Dr. Leonid Eidelman said on Saturday night that the Israel Police had told him it would act with determination to prevent haredi rioters from interfering with the work, as archeologists began to clean the area.
Eidelman expressed his satisfaction that the much-delayed construction of the facility - to protect patients, staffers and visitors from rocket attacks from nearby Gaza - would now begin. He toured the site last week with other IMA executives. He feared that hospital staffers might be harmed by demonstrators, but police said they would do all they could to protect all innocent people.