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Orthodox Jews Protest Destruction of Ashkelon Cemetery by Zionist Government

May 16, 2010

The Israeli government has proceeded with plans to enlarge the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon by destroying an ancient cemetery.

At least 30 Orthodox demonstrators were arrested late Saturday and Sunday as they protested the removal of the human remains believed to be thousands of years old from the construction site.

Police also sprayed protestors with a type of gas, causing them to faint on the spot.

Police tackled protesters who attempted to climb fences and stop work at the construction site in Ashkelon, where work began late Saturday evening,

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, demonstrators blocked roads and set fire to garbage bins late Saturday night in anger at the evacuation of human remains.

Earlier in the evening, a demonstration took place near the Satmar yeshiva in the Meah She'arim neighborhood of Jerusalem, with participants calling for "the prevention of any possibility to desecrate the graves."

Today and tomorrow (Sunday and Monday) demonstrations will take place at 2:00 PM in front of the Israeli Consulate at 800 2nd Avenue in New York City. Aside from the Ashkelon cemetery, these demonstrations are against the uprooting of another ancient cemetery in Jaffa. Excavation in Jaffa stopped 15 years ago in the face of overwhelming Orthodox protest, but it has begun again.

"We are here to express the outcry of world Orthodox Jewry against the desecration of the remains of our ancestors," said one of the organizers of the New York demonstrations. "Jews believe in the immortality of the soul and that is why we are commanded to treat human remains with the greatest respect. We are appalled by the actions of the state calling itself Israel.

"Furthermore," he continued, "there are Jewish cemeteries in other countries that are in danger of destruction. When we appeal to those governments to save our cemeteries, why should they listen when they see that the so-called Jewish state has no problem with destroying its cemeteries?

"Throughout the centuries, Jews have zealously guarded their cemeteries. For Orthodox Jews, destruction of a cemetery is in affront to the basic principles of their faith."

Plans for the extension of the hospital, which is to serve as an emergency room, have been in the making for more than three years. When the ancient graves were discovered, which experts identified by their shape and style as Jewish graves from the Second Temple era, Orthodox Jewish groups asked that the emergency room be built in a different place. Engineers proposed several alternative plans, none of which the government adopted.

The government claims that the alternative plans would place the emergency room too far from the operating room, but the Orthodox activists have shown this to be untrue. The government has also claimed that the alternative plans would cost more, but that is only due to the fact that the plans were for a bigger, more elaborate wing of the hospital. To build the emergency room now under construction on a different side of the hospital would not cost any more.

Yaakov Litzman, Deputy Minister of Health, told Rabbi Dovid Shmidel, head of Asra Kadisha, an organization to save ancient cemeteries, that in reality the government cannot afford to build the emergency room. "They will probably not build it now in any case," he said. "They are only bulldozing the area in order to create facts on the ground and put the opposition of the religious community behind them."

Litzman had introduced a proposal to build the emergency room in a different part of the building, which passed in the Knesset. But Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister and minister of health, overruled the proposal and made the decision to go ahead with the bulldozing of the cemetery right away.

The approximately 30 graves that had been found to date were removed by archaeologists from the Israeli Authority of Antiquities and placed in boxes to be relocated. Then, on Saturday night, a tractor was brought to begin the bulldozing of the remainder of the lot. No further human remains will be removed carefully; everything will be ground up by the blades of the tractor.

The arrival of the tractor in the middle of the night took Orthodox activists by surprise. Large numbers of them traveled to Ashkelon to protest, while others protested in Jerusalem.

The purpose of the protests today and tomorrow in New York is to express solidarity with our brethren in the Holy Land who stand on the watch for the honor of the dead. Netanyahu and his administration are directly responsible for this crime against human dignity and Jewish faith. This matter has has upset Jews worldwide and they can find no rest until an agreeable solution is reached.