'We'll compensate residents by boosting Shabbat observance'

Massive traffic as central Israel highway closes for 24 hours under Haredi pressure

Major project to install pedestrian bridge over Ayalon Highway carried out overnight Thursday-Friday as ultra-Orthodox prevent work on weekend, which would violate Shabbat

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

Heavy traffic on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Heavy traffic on the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel’s busiest road closed early Thursday evening to traffic for 24 hours to enable a major infrastructure project, creating colossal traffic in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, with the operation reportedly being carried out on a work day to avoid upsetting ultra-Orthodox coalition parties that vehemently oppose carrying out the work on a weekend, which would violate Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

The Ayalon Highways government firm said Thursday that Route 20 — more commonly known as the Ayalon Highway — was closing alongside adjacent railway operations while the work is carried out in the city of Rishon Lezion, south of Tel Aviv.

The thoroughfare was shut in both directions in the area of the Moshe Dayan Interchange. The southbound lanes were shut at 5 p.m. Thursday and northbound traffic was halted at 7 p.m. Both lanes were set to remain closed until Friday at 7 p.m., minutes before Shabbat begins.

Vehicles were being diverted to alternative routes to circumvent the junction.

The closure caused massive traffic jams, as the Ayalon Highway links Tel Aviv with a series of towns and cities along the Mediterranean coast, and even on regular days is plagued by congestion in both directions.

For most Israelis, the work week ends on Thursday, and the jammed roads caught many commuters as they were heading home for the weekend. In addition, many soldiers getting weekend breaks usually leave their bases Thursday evening or early Friday morning, meaning that those heading to or from the Tel Aviv metropolis were running into significant delays, and could continue experiencing them on Friday.

Work on a pedestrian bridge across the Ayalon Highway at Moshe Dayan Interchange in Rishon Lezion, May 30, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Workers were set to use cranes to hoist into place a new, 340-meter-long pedestrian bridge connecting the Moshe Dayan railway station with a new complex in Rishon Lezion known as the “1000 Complex.” Ayalon Highways said sections of the bridge weigh up to 300 tons and would need to be moved over Route 20. It asked that the public stay away from the area.

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.

Transportation Minister Miri Regev holds a press conference in Jerusalem, on May 8, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The Transportation Ministry said in a statement that it was seeking to avoid disrupting the “status quo” — a loose term describing a sensitive equilibrium on religion and state in Israel — and that public infrastructure work is only carried out on Shabbat “when lives are at stake.”

MK Boaz Toporovsky of the Yesh Atid opposition party said he had sent an inquiry to Transportation Minister Miri Regev, demanding to know why the project was being carried out on a weekday instead of the weekend, and whether or not the public would be compensated for the resulting disruption.

The avoidance of work on Shabbat “is motivated by political considerations, which leads to disruptions on weekdays and economic harm,” Toporovsky wrote Wednesday. The planned Ayalon project, he said, was “an illustration of the political prioritization over the public’s comfort and economic stability. Is there a non-political reason for the stoppage of work? And will the government compensate the public for the damage?”

Heavy traffic as the Ayalon South highway at Moshe Dayan Interchange is closed for 26 hours to allow for the construction of a new pedestrian bridge, May 30, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Later Wednesday, Deputy Transportation Minister Uri Maklev of UTJ said in the parliament that “the value of observing Shabbat has its price, and we pay it with great joy.”

During a meeting of a Knesset committee on road safety, he answered Toporovsky’s inquiry.

He said that to carry out the work on Shabbat would have violated the status quo between the religious and secular communities.

As for compensation, Maklev said: “We will compensate the residents of Israel by strengthening the observance of the Sabbath. This is my worldview.”

Deputy Minister of Transport and Road Safety Uri Maklev at a press conference in Jerusalem, July 30, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Toporovsky responded by saying it was “an example of the conversion of Israel into a dark, religious state. A state in which its leaders ignore the citizens and the damage caused to them, and don’t even do the minimum to check if there are mass-attendance events on the same day in which it closes main roads.”

Rail service was halted from 8.30 p.m. on Thursday until 4 p.m. on Friday at the following stations: Holon Junction, Holon Wolfson, Bat Yam-Yoseftal, Bat Yam-Komemiyut, and Rishon Lezion’s Moshe Dayan stations. Train services were only to be restored on Saturday night.

The work was also impacting rail services on the Ashkelon-Herzliya line, with trains only running between Ashkelon and Yavneh, and between Herzliya and Tel Aviv’s Savidor station. Trains were not stopping at Tel Aviv’s Hashalom or Haganah stations.

Financial daily The Marker reported that the Israel Hofsheet (Free Israel) rights group had calculated the cost to the economy from carrying out the work on a weekday instead of the weekend at NIS 4.9 million ($1.3 million). The costs arise from lost wages for workers, missing profits for businesses, traffic jams and increased fuel use. Economists from the group said that during the period of the closure, 34 trains should be passing through the area, along with 500 buses and around 94,000 private vehicles.

Yesh Atid MK Boaz Toporovsky attends a Law and Constitution Committee meeting in the Knesset, on June 26, 2022. (Olivier FItoussi/Flash90)

Next week, Route 1, the main highway connecting Jerusalem with Tel Aviv, will be closed every weekday night to complete work on a railway bridge. The highway will be closed from 10 p.m. until 4.30 a.m. on Sunday through Wednesday. Overnight Thursday-Friday, it will be closed from midnight until 9 a.m. There will be an additional closure the week after overnight Thursday-Friday, June 12-13, from midnight until 9 a.m.

On June 16-17, Route 1 is to be closed from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m.

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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