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16 Tammuz 5759 - June 30, 1999 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Archaeologists Arrested for Refusing Police Orders: Tense Struggle at the Site

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

Giora Biran, Deputy Director of the Antiquities Authority, was arrested for ignoring police orders to halt excavation of the graves located on the edges of the Trans-Israel highway, at the Ben Shemen interchange.

In the latest of a series of skirmishes between archaeologists and chareidi activists, work at the site was stopped after the arrival of UTJ MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni, who bodily prevented the archaeologists from continuing to desecrate the graves.

During the confrontation Rabbi Gafni was assaulted by private guards hired by the Antiquities Authority.

Archaeologists had arrived at the site early in the morning accompanied by a group of hired security guards. Police refused to provide protection for their unlawful excavations. Inspectors for the Association for the Prevention of Grave Desecration, who were on the site at that early hour, tried to prevent the archaeologists from entering the area, but the hired guards assaulted them and evicted them from the area.

Amir Drori, Director of the Antiquities Authority, who personally commanded the entire operation along with his assistant, Giora Biran, ordered the security guards to evict the Religious Affairs Ministry officials who were on hand. In an amazing turn of events however, the Arab workers who had been hired by the Authority came late to work. Since senior archaeologists do not do physical work, the graves remained untouched for some time. In the meantime, a large group of avreichim arrived to protest the desecration, only to be assaulted by the hired security men.

One avreich was beaten so severely that he was hospitalized.

Drori, seeing that the situation was getting out of hand and that someone had been injured, fled the site, leaving behind other senior Authority officials who continued to supervise the destruction of the graves.

MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni then arrived and tried to enter the excavation area. Although as an MK he is entitled to enter every place in the country, the security guards refused him entry. He finally entered the area and bodily prevented the Arab workers from digging and smashing buried bones.

Senior police officers arriving at the site were enraged at the archaeologists for having violated all of their agreements with the police. Police officers ordered a halt to the work and the Arab workers were sent away.

However, Giora Biran -- unhappy with this order -- picked up a tool and began to dig. The police immediately arrested him along with another senior employee of the Antiquities Authority.

Rabbi Zelig Braverman, Director of the Burial Department of the Religious Affairs Ministry, who is responsible for burying all bones uncovered in ancient burial sites throughout the country and guaranteeing that the graves remain intact, arrived at the site to meet with the senior police officer. Together they agreed that all work in the area of the graves should be halted.

This incident was proceeded by another which took place In the early hours of the morning on the 8th of Tammuz. Archaeologists began to excavate and desecrate a number of burial caves. Scores of archaeologists and workers, in an organized, clandestine effort, spread out over the area to totally destroy all the graves as quickly as possible. Members of the Association for the Prevention of the Desecration of Graves learned about the scheme and sped to the site. Upon arrival they were greeted by a shocking scene. Scores of archaeologists, with axes in their hands, had begun to destroy and to desecrate the sealed burial caves in the area.

The activists immediately prostrated themselves on the graves, and with their very bodies prevented the archaeologists from continuing to desecrate the kodesh. At the very same time, the activists informed the UTJ Members of Knesset as well as other chareidi activists about the occurrence. A group of avreichim quickly arrived on the scene. The goal: to prevent the archaeologists from carrying out their machinations.

Police, summoned to the site by the archaeologists, evacuated the demonstrators in a brutal manner, even arresting some of them.

Upon the arrival of the Commander in Chief of the Lod Police Department, Deputy Inspector General Benny Sagiv, things calmed down somewhat, and due to the intervention of Deputy Minister Rabbi Meir Porush, and the contact MK Rabbi Avrohom Ravitz made with the Infrastructure Minister, Ariel Sharon, work inside the graves was stopped temporarily, and all of the work centered only around the caves.

Rabbi Meir Porush then arrived on the site with his aide, Rabbi Yosef Deutsch, and asked the director of the Trans- Israel company to intervene to prevent desecration of the graves. Rabbi Porush then met with Deputy Commander of the Lod police station, Yossi Kedem, who ordered a halt to the excavations until an engineering and halachic solution to enable the continuation of the road construction without grave desecration could be found.

However, the archaeologists continued their work of destruction and desecration of the ancient burial caves the following day.

Chareidi activists who had remained at the excavation site, once more lay down on the graves. With great mesiras nefesh, they managed to prevent the archaeologists from a continuation of their desecration.

Police arriving on the scene once more tried to forcibly evacuate the askonim who were protecting the graves. However, with the brisk intervention of Rabbi Moshe Gafni, it was decided at the last moment to stop the excavations and to keep the graves at the site intact. The askonim began to return the bones, which had been desecrated and scattered in a most disgraceful manner, to the burial cave.

In a brash move, the archaeologists filed a complaint with the police against the prominent activist, Rabbi Micha Rothschild, one of the heads of the Federation for the Prevention of the Desecration of Graves, for having "dared" to fulfill the mitzvah of the burial of a meis mitzvah,and returning the bones of the ancients to their burial caves.

Members of the Trans-Israel company also remained at the site the entire time, urging the archaeologists not to yield, and to continue at all costs in exhume the cave, even though it was possible to find solutions for leaving the caves intact.

Last week, the Antiquities Authority issued a press release, replete with lies. In it they said that "20 chareidim went wild at the site of the archaeological diggings conducted by the Antiquities Authority in the Ben Shemen site. The Authority summoned the Lod police to the site."

The devoted chareidi activists note that the exact opposite was true.

In its press release, the Antiquities Authority noted that it had been asked to dig on the archaeological site in Ben Shemen in four points, as well as in the burial cave from the days of the Bayis Sheini. "We are referring to a plundered cave and an additional cave which must be vacated for the purpose of paving the highway. The Authority conducts excavations at ancient grave sites only at the request of promoters, among them government authorities and ministries, such as the Construction and Housing Ministry, and only for the purpose of developing the country. Vacating the ancient graves is a necessity, and we have only two options: stop the country's development and construction or destroy the graves and their contents in order to make way for progress."

In its press release, the Antiquities Authority added: "The excavations in the graves are conducted according to the instructions of the Antiquities Law as well as the Attorney General's guidelines. The Antiquities Authority informs the Religious Affairs Ministry about the excavations and transfers bones which are found on the sites to the representatives of the Ministry for reinterment."

Experts who have examined the area have concluded that it contains at least six sealed burial caves, and that scores of ancient kedoshei elyon who have been at repose there for nearly 2000 years are buried in each of the caves.

Senior Antiquities Authority officials have proven clearly that their sole purpose is to destroy ancient graves instead of seeking engineering-halachic solutions for the problem of burial sites throughout the country, particularly at road construction sites.

These particular caves were discovered over a year ago. Throughout that entire period they were not excavated by Antiquities Authority archaeologists. Recently, however, heavy pressure was exerted by the Trans-Israel company, demanding that the archaeologists continue excavation at all costs.

Members of the Association for the Prevention of the Desecration of Graves note that the caves are still in great danger. The community must be on be prepared to do everything in its power to protect the graves from being destroyed. Activists of the Association for the Prevention of the Desecration of Graves remained on the site in shifts, the entire day. As a result, no digging was done that day.

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