Shabbat train work to resume this weekend despite political feud
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Shabbat train work to resume this weekend despite political feud

Labor minister says Israel Railways will continue infrastructure, repair work on Jewish day of rest, sparking ultra-Orthodox anger

An Israel Railways train passes the Ayalon Highway, near the Arlozorov Street 'Central' train station in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
An Israel Railways train passes the Ayalon Highway, near the Arlozorov Street 'Central' train station in Tel Aviv, August 23, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Despite an ongoing political feud, Israel Railways will resume infrastructure work this weekend, including on Shabbat, on the Tel-Aviv-Jerusalem rail link and maintenance work on another line, as instructed by Labor Minister Haim Katz (Likud).

Katz announced Thursday afternoon that some crucial work will be undertaken this upcoming Saturday, adding that Israel Railways employees who prefer not to work on that day can opt out, according to Israel Radio.

The announcement came amid a political tussle between Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud), the ultra-Orthodox parties, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who earlier this week was spared the need to deal with the issue when the High Court of Justice nullified his controversial order to halt any work on the Jewish day of rest.

The injunction said that Israel Railways was authorized to employ workers on Shabbat if necessary though the end of September, and that any further employment-related matters linked to the project would be ruled on by Katz. The court further instructed the rail company not to take additional instructions from Netanyahu regarding the infrastructure work.

Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz attends a Labor and Welfare committee meeting in the Knesset, June 08, 2015. (Alster/FLASh90)
Social Affairs Minister Haim Katz attends a Labor and Welfare committee meeting in the Knesset, June 08, 2015. (Alster/FLASh90)

Katz’s order on Thursday further enraged the ultra-Orthodox parties in the ruling coalition — who demand strict adherence to Jewish law, creating an additional headache for Netanyahu ,as another political crisis over the Shabbat work appears to be brewing.

The United Torah Judaism party accused Shas party leader Aryeh Deri of “abandoning the fight” after he issued a statement earlier Thursday saying that “secular [Israelis] can decide what kind of Shabbat they want, we understand that we don’t live in a state ruled by Jewish law.”

Deri denied the charge, claiming that the “two parties were working together, with full cooperation,” Army Radio reported.

The height of the crisis came earlier this week, after Netanyahu issued an order last Friday to halt repairs to the state-funded rail lines. That order led to mass transportation delays across the country Sunday and sparked protests by angry commuters.

Travelers at central Tel Aviv's central Savidor station checking a schedule, where no trains northbound are listed, on September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Travelers at central Tel Aviv’s central Savidor station checking a schedule, where no trains northbound are listed, on September 3, 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Netanyahu had instructed Israel Railways to halt 17 out of 20 projects that had been scheduled to take place over last weekend, after ultra-Orthodox parties threatened to topple his coalition if work continued on Shabbat.

As with much other public transportation in the country, trains do not run from Friday afternoon to Saturday night, but repair work considered vital has generally been allowed to take place with the government’s approval.

The last-minute changes of plan caused chaos: Complex preparations for the work had begun on Friday, but because it was not carried out on Shabbat, the train service was not usable in many locations until Sunday night.

As the work belatedly got under way, some 150 train departures on the Haifa-Tel Aviv route, the country’s busiest, were canceled on Sunday morning, affecting an estimated 150,000 travelers and commuters.

Since soldiers returning to their bases after weekend leave particularly affected, the Defense Ministry organized a fleet of buses to help alleviate the chaos, but anger was still widespread among troops and the general public alike.

Some felt that Netanyahu had folded to ultra-Orthodox pressure, others that he had sacrificed their well-being in order to show his ostensibly rebellious transportation minister who’s boss.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen next to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem, September 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, seen next to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz at the weekly cabinet meeting at Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem, September 4, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Netanyahu, for his part, rejected any blame, and accused Katz of intentionally sparking a coalition crisis with the ultra-Orthodox parties just weeks after the two tussled over control of a key Likud party institution.

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