Ultra-Orthodox Jews lose grave battle in Israel

May 16, 2010
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 in Ashkelon on May 16, 2010/Amir Cohen

A heavily guarded operation to dig up ancient graves to make way for a new hospital emergency room has exposed¬† traditional tensions between Israel’s Jewish secular majority and ultra-Orthodox minority.

Police said they arrested 15 religious protesters on Sunday 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.

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.

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