Israeli hospital A&E moved due to ancient graves

By Anshel Pfeffer, March 25, 2010

Binyamin Netanyahu was forced to take time out from his Washington trip this week to order a review of a government decision to relocate a new emergency ward planned for an Ashkelon hospital, at a cost of NIS 136 million (£24 million).

Barzilai Medical Centre has long had plans to build a new emergency ward, however these have been on hold for almost two years due to claims by a Charedi organisation, Atra Kadisha, that skeletons found on the site belong to Jews. Under pressure, the government agreed to build the emergency ward elsewhere, causing a public uproar and the resignation of the Health Ministry's director general.

Ashkelon has come under repeated missile fire from the Gaza Strip in recent years and the current medical facilities are insufficient for dealing with multiple civilian casualties. The new emergency ward was to be reinforced against missile attacks.

Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, of United Torah Judaism, has been told by the party's spiritual leader, Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, not to authorise funding for the new ward until a new site is found. On Sunday, the government narrowly voted in favour of the new plan, which will cost more almost twice the original budget, take three more years to complete and according to the doctors of Barzilai Hospital, will place the emergency ward too far away from the main building.

They vowed this week to physically block any work on the new site. Doctor Eitan Bar-Am, director general of the Health Ministry, resigned in protest at the government's decision.

"It is cut off from reality," he said, "and they won't build either on the new site. The whole area is a huge burial ground. They will find new skeletons once they begin to dig on the new site."

The Israel Antiquities Authority has said that the bones belong to pagans and not Jews. In the past, the Chief Rabbinate has ruled that in cases of national importance, even Jewish bones may be removed for burial at a different site.

But UTJ and its rabbis are holding to the ruling of Atra Kadisha, a hardline organisation that in the past has held up construction of buildings and highways, claiming that they desecrate ancient Jewish cemeteries.

On Monday evening, after arriving at Washington, Mr Netanyahu announced that he was setting up a special panel, to be headed by Prime Minister's Office Director General, Eyal Gabai, to reexamine the government's decision. Meanwhile he gave orders not to begin building on the new site until the panel delivers its recommendations after Pesach.

The panel will meet with Charedi representatives and try to convince them that the building can proceed on the original site without desecrating Jewish bodies.

"I will accept any decision that is agreeable to the head of Atra Kadisha, Rabbi David Schmidel," said Mr Litzman following the prime minister's decision.

Last updated: 2:23pm, March 25 2010