Builder warns avoiding Shabbat work on train bridge will cause highway hazard

Amid religious pressures, Solel Boneh says doing job on several weekdays instead of one weekend means drivers on main Jerusalem-Tel Aviv road must pass under hazardous construction

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

An unfinished construction of a railway bridge on Route 1, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, on June 1, 2024. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash9)
An unfinished construction of a railway bridge on Route 1, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, on June 1, 2024. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash9)

A construction company has accused the Israel Railways of endangering the public by rescheduling a bridge project over a key highway to be carried out during the week instead of over the weekend to satisfy the demands of ultra-Orthodox political parties.

The accusation came amid a heated dispute between the Solel Boneh building company and the railway over work to install a bridge spanning Route 1, the main highway connecting Jerusalem with Tel Aviv and the Gush Dan region in the center of the country.

Solel Boneh says that carrying out the work piecemeal during weekdays requires leaving dangerous construction in place during the day while drivers pass underneath, whereas completing it in one fell swoop over a weekend would avoid such a hazard.

Over the past two days, Solel Boneh said it could not move ahead with the project because a vital engineer had been called up for army reserve duty, and the railway company threatened to cash in some NIS 40 million in guarantees if the work is not carried out as soon as possible.

After the row was reported in Hebrew media, a rights group urged an investigation into whether the railway company was being improperly influenced by political elements.

The plan to install a railway bridge over the Anava Interchange has been delayed for months after initial plans to do the work over the course of one weekend last August were dropped due to pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties who oppose public works being carried out on Saturday, which is Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

Instead, the work was divvied up over seven nights on weekdays, five this week, and two scheduled for a later date. But now, according to the Calcalist outlet, Soleh Boneh apparently wants to be paid more for the work because it will take longer due to the reserve call-up of its engineer.

Construction work on the railway bridge on Route 1, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, on June 2, 2024. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

Israel Railways vice president Ilya Volkov, in a letter to Solel Boneh CEO Assaf Inbar, fumed that the construction company has “dozens if not hundreds of engineers and therefore your message is unacceptable and constitutes a fundamental violation of the agreement,” Hebrew media reported.

Amid the dispute, Inbar noted that by changing the project from a one-off session over a weekend to seven smaller nighttime works, “a part of the construction remains that is not dismantled and the traffic continues on the road below. The change made the dismantling much more complex and dangerous, and inevitably created a risk for the public traveling on Route 1.”

Construction work on the railway bridge on Route 1, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, on June 2, 2024. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

As the spat gained steam, Transportation Ministry Director-General Moshe Ben-Zaken summoned representatives from Israel Railways and Soleh Boneh for clarifications, Calcalist reported.

Meanwhile, the Hofshei B’Artzenu [Free In Our Country] activism group appealed to the attorney general, the chief of police, and the state comptroller to open an investigation into Israel Railways and political elements involved in the Anava saga.

“There is a serious concern that critical professional decisions of the railway were subjected to improper pressures. This is a serious harm to the safety of citizens and the rule of law.” the group told Calcalist.

The developments came after last week the country’s busiest road, the Ayalon Highway, was closed along a section near Tel Aviv on a Thursday night and Friday to enable work on another bridge to be carried out on weekdays rather than Shabbat.

The Transportation Ministry was widely understood to have scheduled the project for a weekday due to pressure from Haredi parties, with the Haaretz daily reporting that United Torah Judaism (UTJ) MK Moshe Gafni, the head of the Knesset Finance Committee, had spearheaded that effort.

According to the report, a previous plan to do the work over a weekend in March was halted, apparently due to ultra-Orthodox pressure.

There have been previous instances in which ultra-Orthodox parties have applied pressure to prevent infrastructure work from being carried out on Shabbat, including in 2018 when work was halted on another bridge over the Ayalon Highway.

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