Ultra-Orthodox Jews lose grave battle in Israel

JERUSALEM Sun May 16, 2010 3:14pm IST

Israeli police arrest an ultra-Orthodox Jew, protesting the digging up of ancient graves, in the coastal town of Ashkelon May 16, 2010.  REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Israeli police arrest an ultra-Orthodox Jew, protesting the digging up of ancient graves, in the coastal town of Ashkelon May 16, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Amir Cohen

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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A heavily guarded operation to dig up ancient graves to make way for a new hospital emergency room exposed on Sunday traditional tensions between Israel's Jewish secular majority and ultra-Orthodox minority.

Police said they arrested 15 religious protesters outside Barzilai hospital in the coastal town of Ashkelon, where plans to build a treatment facility that could withstand rocket attack from the Gaza Strip turned into a political battle in Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government originally decided to move the location of the planned emergency room after the graves were discovered at the site and an ultra-Orthodox coalition partner contended the remains were those of Jews.

It reversed that decision last month after a public outcry over the high cost of redrawing the plans and what critics alleged was its surrender to religious pressure.

Archaeologists said the bones might be pagan. As police blocked off the entrances to Ashkelon and the hospital to try to prevent ultra-Orthodox protests, archaeological teams moved in to exhume the remains, which will be reburied elsewhere.

The controversy was the latest example of a deep religious divide in a Jewish state where the secular and Orthodox have co-existed under a fragile "status quo" set of rules governing everyday life.

Under such guidelines, non-kosher restaurants flourish in Tel Aviv but there is no public bus service in the free-wheeling city on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, in accordance with a ritual ban on vehicular travel.

Emotions were running high over the grave affair.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, an ultra-Orthodox Jew who had pushed for the emergency room to be moved, said Jews would have cried "anti-Semites" if a foreign government had decided to build on ancient Jewish graves.

On the other side of the debate, Nahum Barnea, a popular columnist, suggested in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that Netanyahu had made the right political decision in opting in the end to go ahead with the project.

"The majority of the Israeli public would not have been able to comprehend a government that favours dead pagans over live patients," he wrote.

(Editing by Reed Stevenson)

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