Protesters arrested in Ashkelon over grave relocation


JERUSALEM (JTA) — Up to 40 ultra-Orthodox protesters were arrested during the removal of graves on the site of a new protected emergency room in Ashkelon.

The Israel Antiquities Authority on Sunday began removing and relocating graves from the construction site at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon. Preliminary findings Sunday indicated that the remains are not Jewish but from the Byzantine era, according to reports. 

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a haredi lawmaker from the United Torah Judaism Party, opposes the move. He told Israel Radio on Sunday that his party could leave the coalition over the incident. 

Demonstrations began Saturday night and have continued throughout Sunday.

The underground facility is designed to withstand rocket attack from the Gaza Strip. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the issue of the emergency room at the start of Sunday’s Cabinet meeting. He said the general welfare of the people was the guiding principle in making the decision.

"We are holding consultations, to the degree that this is possible, and are trying to reach agreement with parts of the public, but the government’s ultimate commitment is to the general welfare," he said. "This is how we have acted and this is how we will act."

Protesters reportedly drew a swastika on the walls of the improvised police holding area at Barzilai Hospital, where they were being detained, and wrote, “Barzilai hospital robs graves.”

Protests against the grave removal also took place Sunday in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, where haredi men lit trash containers on fire and beat up municipal employees.  

In March, Israel’s Cabinet approved by one vote a plan to relocate the hospital’s planned emergency room to a site farther away in deference to the haredi sensibilities. But the Cabinet vote sparked a public outcry in Israel; the cost of moving the emergency room to the new site would have been an additional $42 million, according to estimates.

As a result of the outcry, Netanyahu appointed a task force to re-evaluate the decision. The prime minister last month announced that the plans for the ER would go forward on the original site.

Also Sunday, haredim gathered in Jaffa to protest infrastructure work on a site where they say ancient graves are located. Some 17 protesters were arrested for disrupting the construction work and for not obtaining a permit to protest. 

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