Economy Ministry bans intercity train construction on Shabbat

Israel Railways says directive, part of apparent labor dispute, sets back $1.5-billion project by two years

Economy Minister Aryeh Deri. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Economy Minister Aryeh Deri. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Economy Minister Aryeh Deri has ordered all construction on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv high-speed train line be halted on Shabbat, in a move that Israel Railways said would delay the project by two years.

Meanwhile, Israel Railways also announced that the last train to depart late Friday afternoon as well as the first trains on Saturday night have been canceled due to their proximity to the Jewish day of rest, which begins at sunset Friday and lasts through nightfall Saturday.

Construction on the express railway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, originally set to be completed by late 2017 or early 2018, will come to a standstill starting this weekend, as per the directive of the ultra-Orthodox minister.

According to Army Radio, the decision was the result of a dispute between the Economy Ministry and the Transportation Ministry. The Economy Ministry maintained the railway had to obtain special labor permits from the Transportation Ministry to work on Shabbat. The Transportation Ministry, meanwhile, said that the permits fall under the sole jurisdiction of the Economy Ministry.

The Economy Ministry defended the decision, telling the Ynet news website that Israel Railways was bound by law to seek special Shabbat permits and had not done so.

The railway authority said the move effectively sets back the NIS 6 billion ($1.5 billion) project — which began in 2001 — until 2020.

Avigdor Liberman, leader of the opposition Yisrael Beytenu party, slammed the decision, and urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene.

“This is illogical and intolerable and cannot exist in a normal country. The prime minister must intervene and immediately order to reinstate [the construction] to its former state,” Liberman said.

In August, Deri penned a letter to Netanyahu threatening to pull out of the coalition in protest of what he says was the desecration of Shabbat by construction work to remove rubble from a demolished Tel Aviv overpass.

A view of the tunnels and bridges under construction along the route of the express train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, on Feb 06, 2014. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
A view of the tunnels and bridges under construction along the route of the express train between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, on February 6, 2014. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

“The next time there is an unneeded and outrageous desecration of Shabbat to work on the Tel Aviv light rail or any other state project as happened on this Shabbat, which was not needed for life-saving reasons, the Shas faction I head will not let this pass,” Deri wrote in the letter, widely published in the Hebrew media.

Earlier this month, a ban was imposed on Israeli soccer leagues from playing on Shabbat as part of a convoluted labor dispute. The soccer crisis began when Labor Court Judge Ariella Glitzer ruled that organizing or participating in soccer matches on Shabbat was technically illegal, and ordered the Israel Football Association to obtain a work waiver from the minister of economy, who is also in charge of the enforcing of labor laws. Deri, from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, was not prepared to sign such a waiver.

Glitzer made her decision after hundreds of players petitioned the IFA, refusing to play games on the Jewish day of rest.

In their letter, the players claimed that requiring them to play on Shabbat violated Israel’s Work and Rest Hours law, a largely ignored 1951 piece of legislation that prohibits employees from working on the Sabbath without a special dispensation from the economy minister.

Following a request from Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said he saw no reason to change the long-standing policy of non-enforcing the law in this case. The IFA, which had threatened to halt all games, announced that weekend games would continue without change.

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