Left-wing MKs and activists protested Friday over a decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to halt infrastructure work at Tel Aviv train stations on weekends, after opposition from religious parties in the coalition who claim that it desecrates Shabbat.
The protesters included Meretz leader Zehava Galon, the faction’s Knesset chairman Ilan Gilon, and MKs Tamar Zandberg and Michal Rozin. Standing at the Arlozorov Street train station, a public transportation hub in the heart of Tel Aviv, Galon warned that the decision could result in legal action.
“If infrastructure work does not continue as planned, Meretz will file a class action suing for hundreds of millions of shekels,” she said.
Netanyahu halted 17 out of 20 infrastructure projects, as well as some of the train lines operating on Friday afternoons and Saturday evenings, after the ultra-Orthodox parties threatened to topple the coalition if work continued on Shabbat.
At present, the weekend trains run up to 20 minutes before the start of Shabbat and resume 20 minutes after it is over, meaning some Israel Railways staff finish work when the weekly day of rest has already begun on Fridays, and to return to work before it is over on Saturdays.
The canceled lines will affect some 70,000 travelers, including thousands of soldiers on mandatory military service who go home for the weekends. Suspending the infrastructure projects will also mean a delay in completing the high-speed train line between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which is set to be completed in 2018 and is already behind schedule.
The three projects that are allowed to continue despite ultra-Orthodox objections are those whose delay, police said, would constitute a genuine risk to human life due to traffic complications. But, the Ynet news website said, the ultra-Orthodox parties rejected the police argument, and claim that alternative solutions can be found.
According to Jewish law, the religious rules of conduct for Shabbat, such as the prohibition to work or to operate electrical machinery and engines, can be violated when a human life is at risk.
Meanwhile, Israel’s chief rabbis announced Friday that they are rejecting the work permits for Shabbat for all 20 projects.
After last weekend’s construction work triggered a coalition crisis, Netanyahu earlier this week pacified the ultra-Orthodox parties by promising to establish an inter-ministerial committee on infrastructure work on weekends. Netanyahu’s chief of staff, Yoav Horowitz, met at the Prime Minister’s Office with ministers Yaakov Litzman (United Torah Judaism), Aryeh Deri (Shas) and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. Also present were the head of Israel Railways, the secretary general of the Chief Rabbinate and a representative from the Labor Ministry in charge of granting special weekend work permits.
The ultra-Orthodox ministers said at the meeting that keeping Shabbat is more important than providing public services. The CEO of Israel Railways, Boaz Tzafrir, said that canceling the lines and the projects would affect 72,000 commuters and delay the delivery of goods on freight cars worth NIS 4 million.
Ahead of Friday’s protest, Galon demanded from Tzafrir that the work continue according to the original plan, saying it is not in Netanyahu’s purview to cancel it.
“The prime minister and the chief of staff in his office do not have the authority to instruct to stop infrastructure work, and once the work permits were issued lawfully by the authorized agency, which is the Labor Ministry, the prime minister has no business meddling in this issue and it is not within his authority,” Galon told Tzafrir, according to Channel 10.
But, said Moshe Dagan, secretary-general of the Chief Rabbinate, the weekend work is not something that would save human lives and as such would not be allowed.
“As a representative of the chief rabbis, I would like to announce that our position is that the Shabbat projects for which the railways asked permission have not been approved and cannot be carried out over Shabbat as they do not involve a risk to human lives,” said Dagan.
Leaders of Zionist Union, MKs Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, said their party will arrange private transportation for any soldiers adversely affected by the cancellation of the train lines.
“The ministers of this government do not care about a mother who misses her son the soldier and at the service of political interest they steal the mother and son’s quality time together,” Herzog said. Livni added: “The state of the Jewish people is not a monopoly of the ultra-Orthodox parties.”