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Page last updated at 07:16 GMT, Monday, 5 April 2010 08:16 UK

Religious row holds up Israeli hospital

Beth McLeod
BBC News, Ashkelon

Barizilai Hospital
Yards away from the hospital there are some graves

The emergency unit at Barzilai Hospital in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon is dark and cramped. Patients jostle for space along a narrow hallway.

Construction of the planned new casualty ward has stalled due to the latest flare-up in the bitter conflict between religious and secular Jews.

Religious groups oppose building on the planned site because an ancient burial ground has been discovered there.

Dr Ron Lobel, the hospital's deputy director, cannot hide his anger.

"There are only 20 beds in here - you can imagine how it looks when a mass casualty accident happens and more than 100 patients arrive in ambulances."

Barzilai hospital is 12km from the Gaza Strip and the new unit was to be fortified against the rockets often fired into Israel by Palestinian militants.

Dr Ron Lobel
This is a huge project, it took us seven whole years to collect the money
Dr Ron Lobel,
Deputy Director Barzilai Hospital

Nearly three-quarters of the hospital's patients had to be evacuated during Israel's military operation in Gaza last year, as there was nowhere safe for them to stay as the rockets fell in response.

Dr Lobel points to a spot in a buttercup-filled field behind the hospital, where there should be a 50-bed emergency unit, with space for 300 more patients below it.

"I'm very frustrated - you can't imagine, this is a huge project, it took us seven whole years to collect the money, and here we are two years later, without anything moving," says Dr Lobel.

Ancient graves

In a patch of bare earth, behind a small wire fence, are several tomb-shaped holes in the ground.

map

It has not been confirmed whether the ancient graves belong to Jews, but religious leaders have been lobbying the government to halt construction on the site until this is determined.

Last week, the Israeli cabinet voted by 11-10 to build a new emergency unit above ground, on a different site.

But Dr Lobel says this would cost almost twice as much as the original proposal of 140m Israeli shekels ($38m, £25m).

It would also be further from the operating theatres, which, for some patients, "could be the difference between life and death," he says.

Such was the outcry over the cabinet's decision - the director general of the Health Ministry resigned over it - that Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu has appointed a taskforce to re-evaluate it.

It is due to report back after the Passover holiday.

But religious groups insist that the decision is the right one.

Atra Kadisha, an ultra-orthodox society which campaigns for the preservation of gravesites, has been leading the opposition to the new emergency unit at Barzilai hospital, arguing that Jewish law states respect must be given to dead bodies.

It is not the first time that the building of Israeli infrastructure has been halted over this issue.

The trans-Israel highway was delayed for two years because of ultra-orthodox complaints that the planned route would destroy ancient Jewish graves.

Resentment

Religious-secular rows have blown up over a range of other issues.

Protests by Orthodox jews
Orthodox Jews have protested against the secularisation of Israel

For example, there have been recent protests in Jerusalem over the opening of car park and a factory on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, and over government funded bus routes on which men and women must sit separately.

Often the most vocal campaigners on these issues are ultra-orthodox Jews, who are estimated to make up about 8% of Israel's Jewish population.

They adhere to strict interpretations of Jewish law on issues such as keeping the Sabbath, segregation between men and women in public places, modest dress and kosher food.

There is growing resentment among secular Israelis over the fact that the majority of ultra-orthodox Jews don' t work, but are essentially subsidised by the state to study the Bible.

They are also exempt from military service, although some do choose to serve.

Jewish religious parties, particularly the ultra-orthodox party Shas, wield hefty political power in the Israeli political system, where they often end up as kingmakers in multi-party coalitions.

Shas has been willing to support both the right and left, often extracting major pledges on the welfare benefits many ultra-orthodox families rely on in exchange for its backing.

'Tradition'

But while ultra-orthodox views can be very hard-line, the issues are at the heart of wider questions over what is meant by the government's description of Israel as a Jewish, democratic state.

Rabbi Shimon Golan
It's very important in Jewish law to respect the dead, to avoid touching the bones if at all possible. But if it's in the public interest the bones can be moved
Rabbi Shimon Golan

Around 10% of Israeli Jews describe themselves as religious rather than ultra-orthodox, and they still think that Israeli laws should reflect Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Shimon Golan is among this group:

"Here we live in our own state, we must run the state according to our own tradition, our own heritage. But we don't live in the 19th century now, we live in a modern state, and we must take that into account."

He says that a compromise could be reached over the Barzilai hospital controversy, and that in order to save a life Jewish law can be overruled.

"It's very important in Jewish law to respect the dead, to avoid touching the bones if at all possible - but if it's in the public interest the bones can be moved, and there are precedents for this."

But such compromises will not necessarily bridge the divide on all similar contentious issues.

And there are even those who believe that, should a peace deal be reached with the Palestinians, secular-religious conflicts would tear Israeli society apart.



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