Hundreds of people in Tel Aviv and Haifa on Saturday night demonstrated against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to halt infrastructure work on several of Israel’s railway stations on Shabbat following pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties.
The protests, which drew Knesset opposition figures, came hours before the halting of trains between Tel Aviv and Haifa amid a bitter intra-Likud row snarled Sunday morning traffic for over 100,000 travelers and commuters, including thousands of soldiers trying to return to base.
Protesters gathered outside various train stations in both cities waving Israeli flags, carrying signs that read “Bibi, this is our train too,” and “Let’s get the country back on track.”
The rallies were organized by an organization called Free Israel, a non-profit group fighting against ultra-Orthodox hegemony in Israel.
Chairwoman of the left-wing Meretz party Zehava Galon and colleague Tamar Zandberg joined protesters at the Savidor train station on Tel Aviv’s Arlozorov Street.
Galon, who earlier in the day petitioned the High Court of Justice over Netanyahu’s decision, slammed the prime minister for capitulating to the ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition.
“The people are demanding more than public transportation, the people are demanding leadership that care about them, and who makes decisions that prioritize you, the public, as the priority,” she said.
The demonstrations were organized after Netanyahu on Friday instructed Israel Railways to halt 17 out of 20 projects that had been scheduled to take place over the weekend, after ultra-Orthodox parties threatened to topple his coalition if work continued on Shabbat.
Work on the 17 projects instead began on Saturday night — after Shabbat ended — and into Sunday, leading to the cancellation of at least 150 train departures on the Haifa-Tel Aviv route Sunday morning, affecting an estimated 150,000 travelers and commuters. The headache was particularly acute as Sunday is the day most soldiers are expected to return to base after weekend leave.
The Tel Aviv-Binyamina line was canceled throughout Sunday, while southbound trains entering Tel Aviv from the north at the city’s Mercaz Savidor station without reaching the southern half of the city.
Israel Radio on Sunday morning reported heavier than usual traffic on highways between Tel Aviv and Haifa, with the gridlock rippling out to other parts of the country.
Members of the opposition also said Saturday that they have collected the 25 MKs’ signatures needed to force a special Knesset committee session to discuss the decision to terminate services at several railway stations after Shabbat, in order to allow for construction work that should have taken place on Friday and Saturday, when trains do not run.
The three projects that were allowed to continue despite ultra-Orthodox objections were those whose delay would, according to the police, 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 claimed that alternative solutions should 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. Moshe Dagan, secretary-general of the Chief Rabbinate, however, said the weekend work is not something that would save human lives and as such would not be allowed.
Netanyahu on Saturday accused Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz of intentionally sparking a coalition crisis with the ultra-Orthodox parties over Sabbath work on the railways, just weeks after the two fought over control of a key Likud party institution.
Netanyahu claimed Katz created the crisis by ordering construction work on the rail network over the weekend when it wasn’t necessary to do so, ostensibly in order to avoid train delays.