Removal of ancient bones at Jerusalem construction sites sparks protests, clashes

January 10, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau

JERUSALEM -- So many peoples' ancestors were here, it is natural to find the bones of some lying around.

They are not always in convenient places.

When Israeli archaeologists found human bones at two Jerusalem construction sites -- a highway interchange and an apartment parking lot -- their attempts to remove the old remains sparked demonstrations and a riot last week.

Israel's ultra-orthodox Jews protested that moving the remains violated sacred promises. When archaeologists spirited the xTC bones from one site off to a museum in a secret midnight foray, the ultra-orthodox took to the streets, set fires and threw rocks at police. Thirteen persons were injured.

The black-suited "Haredim" -- ultra orthodox -- promise another large demonstration today, and tempers remain high. Death threats have been sent to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin on his office fax machine and telephoned to a top police commander.

"Haredi violence must stop," demanded the Jerusalem Post. "Jewish mobs should not be treated differently than any other."

The conflict has once again set secular Israelis against the small but powerful religious minorities. It has brought scenes of police firing shots and using batons to control an angry crowd, actions that Israelis are accustomed to seeing aimed against Palestinians.

"Jerusalem is the most complicated city in the world," Mayor Teddy Kollek moaned publicly last week.

A variety of explanations has been offered for the violence, including internal politics between sects of the ultra-religious, and even a struggle for control of Jerusalem because of the impending retirement of Mr. Kollek this year.

But the immediate conflict is over bones. "Once a person is buried, they have a right not to be disturbed," a young Haredi teen-ager, wearing curled side locks and a stiff black hat, said in the ultra-orthodox neighborhood of Mea She'arim.

Posters on the walls in the neighborhood called for a rally against the "grave robbers" of the "anti-Semitic" government. "The Zionist government . . . champions oppression of the Torah and destroying religion," said one poster.

Government officials say they are baffled by the protest. Construction in rapidly expanding Jerusalem often involves relocating remains, they say, and is usually done without objection.

"We have about 200 excavations every year, and most of them involve graves," said Efrat Orbach, a spokeswoman for the Israel Antiquities Authority. Skeletal remains are carefully collected by archaeologists, studied and turned over to authorities of the appropriate religion -- Christian, Muslim or Jewish -- for reburial, she said.

"Throughout history, when people wanted to expand the city, they had to move graves," she said. "A lot of people lived here, so you have a lot of graves."

The first demonstrations erupted in November when road builders found bones in clay jars in seven Jewish burial caves at the site of an interchange being constructed near the city's French Hill suburb.

City officials say the interchange is vital to relieve the huge congestion at a key intersection. It will connect the downtown with settlements that have grown into large bedroom communities for Jerusalem.

"By the end of this year, we will have about 50,000 people living above that intersection," said Bonnie Boxer, a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem municipality. "It's already the worst traffic jam in the city."

Sixteen of the 2,000-year-old clay jars from two caves were removed and reburied by Jerusalem's chief rabbi. But ultra-orthodox Jews staged mass demonstrations at the site, blocking traffic, and eventually got a court injunction stopping the excavation of the other caves.

Meanwhile, in the center of the city, archaeologists had been quietly removing bones from the site of a large complex of luxury villas and shops being built opposite the Old City's Jaffa Gate.

The remains from about 75 burial caves -- most of them Jewish -- were excavated, according to Ms. Orbach. To try to avoid opposition, archaeologists worked in the middle of the night to remove the remains.

Last Sunday, to finish the job, they entered the final large cave, ironically containing bones archaeologists say are Christian. The cave contained stacked bodies of some of the 25,000 Christians who were killed in a massacre by Persians in the seventh century, they say.

As the last bones were removed and the bulldozers started work, Haredim raced through their neighborhoods at 4 a.m. with loudspeakers to awaken residents. They flocked toward the project to protest.

Driven back by police, they smashed city property in Mea She'arim and adjoining Geula, set nearly 200 large garbage bins afire, and damaged cars. Police fired rubber bullets into the air, and used tear gas and batons.

"The police overreacted," complained Hanania Fisher, a 22-year-old Haredi who was briefly arrested in the disturbance.

"The government is definitely against the religious," said another ultra-orthodox man, who gave his name only as Shlomo.

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