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Archaeologists in Israel fear grave-dig ban

A prohibition on excavating ancient Jewish graves, demanded by ultra- Orthodox Jews in the wake of their election success, may end serious archaeological research in Israel.

Archaeologists fear the incoming government of Binyamin Netanyahu will give in to an ultra-Orthodox demand for rabbinical supervision of all excavations.

"Already we don't excavate ancient cemeteries even when we know where they are," said Professor Ami Mazar, director of the Archaeological Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "This makes it very difficult to carry out research. Now [the ultra-Orthodox] want excavations to be supervised by rabbis."

The black-coated Haredim, the ultra-Orthodox, have always objected to archaeologists disturbing Jewish bones, however long ago they were interred. When they suspect this is happening they demonstrate in their thousands, often bringing the excavation to a halt.

Professor Mazar said a turning point came last year when the Attorney- General, Michael Ben-Yair, decided that bones"should no longer be considered as antiquities. We thought the law was supporting us and we suddenly discovered that it didn't". As a result, all bones have to be handed over to the Ministry of Religious Affairs on the same day they are dug up.

Israeli archaeologists fear that restrictions on their work are about to get much tighter. In negotiations about joining a coalition under Mr Netanyahu, the ultra-Orthodox are asking that all excavations of graves be ended. They also demand that in future no excavation be started without the permission of the Chief Rabbi and that work should be supervised by an ultra-Orthodox inspector.

The professor said that archaeologists in Israel already try to excavate settlements rather than graveyards, and warned: "In future archaeologists could be sued for digging up a tomb."

Nor is it just archaeologists who can be inconvenienced. By law in Israel rescue excavations must be dug before new houses or roads are built. This causes problems for contractors if graves are discovered. At Givat Ram, in west Jerusalem, for instance, the construction of the Route No 4 highway has stopped because an old Jewish cemetery lies in its path.