JERUSALEM (Jan. 27)
An Israeli court decision clearing the way for highway construction at a Jerusalem road junction where ancient burial caves are located has triggered mass protests by Orthodox Jews here.
Crowds of haredim, or fervently religious Jews, converged at the intersection Wednesday and threw stones at police officers called to the scene. Several people were slightly wounded.
The protesters flocked to the scene when archaeologists began excavation work at one of the caves immediately after Israel’s High Court of Justice handed down its decision. The archaeologists are to remove the cave’s contents before the road construction.
Orthodox leaders decried the court decision, with Knesset member Avraham Ravitz of the United Torah Judaism bloc describing the decision as “scandalous.”
The long-running conflict stems from the city of Jerusalem’s plan to build a new highway passing through the French Hill junction.
However, five ancient burial caves thought to contain Jewish graves were discovered along the road’s path, and haredi groups have bitterly opposed disturbing the graves, saying it would contravene Jewish law.
A three-justice panel Wednesday rejected five separate petitions filed by haredi groups in an attempt to block any construction or archeological excavations at the site.
Under a compromise plan proposed by the government, the original path of the road would be shifted to avoid four of the burial caves but would still run over one of them. The plan would also cost the city significantly more money.
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Haredi opponents have said they would not be satisfied with the alternate plan, insisting any desecration of any burial site was unacceptable.
After the court decision was announced, there was unrest in the Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem. In Mea She’arim, local youths turned over garbage bins and set them on fire. Shabbat Square in the neighborhood was blocked to traffic, with youths throwing stones at police.
During incidents in Mea She’arim and at the construction site, at least one policeman, a photographer, and a protester were hurt.
The court ordered that if the compromise plan is pursued, the Israel Antiquities Authority should be authorized to excavate the one cave and that the bones should be reburied by the Chief Rabbinical Council.
Although the court opinion seemed to express a preference for the alternate plan, the justices also said the city was entitled to excavate all five caves and go back to the original proposal if forced to do so for financial reasons.
The court said the four other caves were not to be considered a “holy site” and that the Antiquities Authority would be entitled to do whatever it chose with the sarcophagi and other objects found inside.
Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek said the city was ready to work on the alternative site if completion of the interchange would not be delayed by more than three or four months.
The road will be paved, he promised, “and if the haredi Jews want war, they will get war.”