Protests over Archaeological Moves Reminiscent of Intifada’s Worst Days

Columns of black smoke wafting upward to the sky Sunday reminded Jerusalem residents of the bad days of the intifada.

Stones smashing through windshields, baying crowds of jostling youths and ragged charges by baton-brandishing policemen — these, too, seemed reminiscent of the early months of the Palestinian uprising.

The only difference was that this time, the burning roadblocks were in western Jerusalem, rather than the Arab-dominated eastern half of the capital — more precisely, throughout the northwestern reaches of the city in the solid heartland of fervently Orthodox haredim.

Thousands of young haredim took to the streets in a surge of angry violence in the wake of a stealthy operation Saturday night by archaeologists and city earth-movers at a controversial building site in downtown Jerusalem.

Their protests were triggered by the night’s events at the Mamilla building project, where graves found and now demolished are almost certainly seventh-century Christian tombs.

But the day’s violence was clearly intended as a signal of what the capital can expect if the city and the Israel Antiquities Authority go ahead with documenting and then demolishing 2,000-year-old Jewish burial caves unearthed at a major highway building site at French Hill, in the northern part of the city.

“The intifada itself will seem like child’s play if that happens,” Yehuda Meshi Zahav, a haredi activist, vowed as he watched clashes between haredim and police, and between haredim and secular citizens, at sites throughout the northwest section of the city.

The day’s demonstrations left a 6-year-old hospitalized with an injured eye, and several demonstrators and police officers slightly hurt. At least a dozen haredim were arrested.

The main tactic of the haredim was to push garbage carts into the middle of busy streets and set them on fire. The strategy had the effect of virtually paralyzing the northern half of the city for hours.

COURT ORDERS FREEZE ON WORK

At the High Court of Justice, meanwhile, Justice Aharon Barak ordered a freeze on work at the disputed French Hill site, pending a full hearing on the issue in 10 days.

The haredim greeted the ruling as a victory.

“We have no problem with Barak’s permission to the archaeologists to measure the burial caves and list their contents,” said attorney Rafael Shtub, who represented the haredi Athra Kadisha group in the court hearing.

Shtub contended that efforts by Diaspora Jews to preserve Jewish graveyards abroad would be severely compromised once it was learned that a burial site in Jerusalem had been violated.

Yoram Bar-Sela, representing the Antiquities Authority, argued that the French Hill site, which dates to the period of the Second Temple, could not be considered a graveyard within the meaning of the law.

He also contended that Athra Kadisha, a society for preserving Jewish burial sites, had no standing in the case, but Barak rejected the argument.

The city affirmed that there is no acceptable alternative to a highway at that site for alleviating major traffic snarls in the north of the capital every morning.

Tens of thousands of residents of the northern suburbs waste up to an hour getting into town, the court was told.

“I can only pray that my wife, who is pregnant, does not have her labor pains between 6 a.m. and 8 a.m,” said attorney Amnon Lorch, a resident of the northern suburb of Pisgat Ze’ev, who appeared on behalf of the neighborhood committee.

The haredi representative voiced sympathy for this problem, but said its solution could not come at the price of disturbing the peace of the dead.

He cited a ruling by Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Kolitz to the effect that there is no difference, halachically, between the French Hill site and any of the more modern graveyards in the city.

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