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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish protesters: Israel housing project being built on Jewish graves

An Israeli policeman drags an ultra-Orthodox man during clashes in the Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh on Monday. Nir Elias / Reuters

JERUSALEM -- The Jerusalem suburb of Beit Shemesh looked like a battlefield on Monday after around 100 ultra-Orthodox Jews burned trash cans, smashed bus windows, set a field of wild bush on fire and threw rocks at police officers.

The violence expanded into the capital and by the end of the day, 29 people had been arrested.

The protesters were demonstrating against a construction project that would appear to be in their own interests – a new complex meant to house some 1,000 Jewish families. The trouble is, it's being built on top of what they say is a Jewish cemetery.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man protest in front of Israeli border police, during a demonstration in Beit Shemesh on Monday. Abir Sultan / EPA

"Our interest is that people will be able to build their houses, but we truly believe that there are graves there," said Yitzhak Weiss, a journalist associated with Atra Kadisha, an ultra-Orthodox organization dedicated to the preservation of ancient Jewish burial sites.

The group says it has found caves and bones that indicate the site was an ancient Jewish cemetery, and they say the Goloventzitz construction project will desecrate graves if it continues.

"We came because there are old graves and because according to Jewish law and the sages, it is a great sin to damage graves and bones," protester Yosef Krozer told the Jerusalem Post Monday. He insisted that "building here is forbidden."

If the protesters and Atra Kadisha are right, it would mean a death sentence for the project's development and the thousands of hopeful residents who already put down-payments on their future homes.

When surveyors found caves beneath the earth when construction began two years ago, everything was suspended. Under Hahalacha, the Jewish law, construction must stop if there is any suspicion that Jews are buried at a site. If it is agreed that there are indeed Jewish graves, a costly and time-consuming process begins: Hahalacha dictates special construction measures to protect the burial ground. Nothing can be built underground and there must be ventilation shafts between the graves and the cement, for instance.

Wary of Atra Kadisha's claims, the association of developers behind the Goloventzitz project brought in another surveyor.

"We checked the construction site and found no evidence of a Jewish burial site," said Yanki Paley of Eretz Hachaim, an organization that also works to conserve ancient sites.

Israeli border policemen arrest an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man during a demonstration in Beit Shemesh on Monday. Abir Sultan / EPA

"We all believe in the value of memory, especially if we're talking about burial grounds," Paley said. "But this land is full of graves and the Jewish Hahalach says that if we come across graves, there are creative ways to overcome this situation and build above them."

"We came to Ramat Beit Shemesh to live in peace with everyone, and the extremists groups who are causing so many problems have to be dealt with all available strength," local resident Aron Solomon told the Jerusalem Post. He added that he was against violence "under any circumstance," but believed the construction should carry on.

The Goloventzitz site has been at a standstill for two years, but after Monday's violence both developers and protesters agreed to bring a group of rabbis to the site for a final ruling. The fate of thousands – both above and below ground – hangs in the balance.

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