West Bank site holy to Jews emerges as flashpoint
By MATTI FRIEDMAN, Associated Press
NABLUS, West Bank — A modest stone building holy to Jews in the
midst of this Arab city is becoming an increasingly volatile
friction point, drawing growing numbers of pilgrims on nighttime
prayer visits, unnerving Palestinian residents and putting
Israel's military into conflict with some of the worshippers it is
meant to protect.
The monthly trips by religious Jews to this largely hostile city,
coordinated with Palestinian security forces, emphasize the
complexity of the Holy Land's religious landscape and the
sometimes deadly intersection of the sacred and the political.
Just after midnight Monday, convoys of buses carrying 1,600 Jewish
worshippers began driving into Nablus in waves for prayers at
Joseph's Tomb. Escorted by olive-drab army jeeps and dozens of
ground troops, it was the biggest group to reach the site since
the military began regularly allowing visits four years ago.
The lead bus was crammed to perhaps twice its capacity with
ultra-Orthodox Jews in long black coats, settler teens in jeans
and T-shirts, and girls in long skirts. There was an air of
anticipation and, as time wore on, a sour smell of perspiration.
When the buses finally moved into Nablus, Israeli soldiers in
battle gear were visible securing the route, standing by closed
shops and clumped beside a Bank of Palestine ATM.
Organizers, members of the hard core of Israel's settlement
movement, see the visits to the traditional gravesite of the
biblical Joseph as a mix of religious duty, assertion of ownership
and show of force. For many observant Jews, Nablus is part of the
biblical land promised to the Jews by God.
"These are our roots," said Gilad Levanon, a 22-year-old Jewish
seminary student, who was among the worshippers this week. "We
have a strong belief that this is our role in this world — to
continue the path of our fathers, despite momentary interference."
Palestinians view them as a provocation and an attempt by Israeli
extremists to create a political foothold inside their city, which
is one of the main autonomous zones established by the interim
peace accords of the 1990s. The Palestinians hope to make the
entire West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, part
of a future independent state.
"If a believer wants to worship God, he can do that from any
place," said Zuheir Dubei, 58, a mosque preacher in Nablus, "not
only from a place like Joseph's Tomb where blood can be shed."
There are always more would-be worshippers than places on the
buses, and people often spend months on a waiting list, said David
Haivry, a settler spokesman and convoy organizer.
Some worshippers, including about 200 young men on Monday, have
made a point of sneaking into Nablus without permission, forcing
the army to play a game of nocturnal cat-and-mouse with them in
the fields around the city. Last month, a 25-year-old Israeli man
traveled to the tomb without permission and was killed by a
In coordination with the military, Palestinian security forces are
pulled off the streets when the worshippers go in to avoid clashes
with the Israelis, and the streets were empty when the first buses
arrived. The only explicit sign that the city of 125,000 was
inhabited came in the form of a lone rock that slammed into the
side of the lead bus as it passed a row of homes.
The first to leap out when the bus pulled up outside the domed
tomb was a young man with red sidelocks who wore the long black
gabardine of the Bratslav Hasidic sect. He sprinted for the tomb,
joined by streams of worshippers who poured out of the buses, ran
through the gate and pressed ecstatically into the small room that
houses the grave marker to chant psalms. Hebrew graffiti on one
wall read, "Joseph lives."
Some visitors openly lamented the fact that they could not freely
access the tomb whenever they pleased. "We're still coming at
night, like dogs," one bearded man said.
The tomb area assumed an air of anarchic festivity as the center
of a silent Palestinian neighborhood, between a girls' school and
a shuttered candy kiosk, became the temporary domain of the
Israeli religious right: a crush of black-clad men singing Hebrew
songs, middle-aged women, cigarette-smoking youths and teenage
girls in Ugg boots.
One man dressed entirely in white banged a drum, stopping just
long enough to blow a shofar, a traditional ram's horn. There were
the velvet skullcaps and black hats of the ultra-Orthodox, the
enormous knitted skullcaps of settler hard-liners, and the berets
and helmets of heavily armed soldiers.
A nighttime observer might not recognize the tomb area in
On a morning earlier this month, the tomb was empty, guarded by
two sleepy Palestinian policemen in a pickup truck. The sound of
children was audible from the school, and Raji Barah, 43, was
selling candy and drinks from his kiosk.
Barah said he had been questioned by Israeli soldiers after the
Jewish worshipper's death two weeks earlier.
"They said, 'Did you see the one who fired?' I said, 'I didn't see
anything,'" Barah said.
Nablus was a militant hotbed in the years of the Palestinian
uprising last decade. The city's Palestinians and the residents of
nearby settlements, considered hard-line even by many other
settlers, view each other with deep animosity.
To secure the Jewish worshippers, the military takes up positions
in nearby buildings.
Sahar Mussa, 38, lives on the top floor of an apartment building
overlooking the tomb, making it both a potential threat to the
worshippers and a useful position for troops, who typically take
it over before the buses come in, she said.
The soldiers usually arrive before midnight, move Mussa, her
husband and her children into one room and take up posts at the
windows until the last worshippers leave, she said.
"They wake us up, pick a place and say, 'Sit here,'" she said. Her
door bore circular indentations where she said soldiers pounded
with the muzzles of their weapons. The army said it uses "external
lookout points," such as rooftops, but does not take over people's
The authenticity of Joseph's Tomb is a matter of debate, though
the identification with Joseph is many centuries old. Some local
Palestinians say the building was a mosque, or the tomb of a
sheik. But that means little to the Jewish worshippers who revere
Israel had a permanent presence at Joseph's Tomb until the
outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in 2000, when troops were
pulled out after deadly fighting. Palestinians then burned the
In 2007, with violence largely subsided and ties improving with
Palestinian security forces, the Israeli military began escorting
Jews in to pray at the site, where the Oslo peace agreements of
the 1990s stated that Jews would have unimpeded access.
Worshippers get about half an hour at the tomb before organizers
hurry them out to allow the next buses in. The convoys continue
until just before dawn, when all Israeli forces are supposed to be
out of the city.
On Monday, hundreds of Israelis who could not find room on the
buses defied the army and made their way on foot. Groups of youths
in the black suits of religious seminary students were visible
around 3 a.m. on West Bank roads, appearing ghostly in the
headlights of a passing car.
Fifty worshippers refused to leave the tomb when dawn broke, and
with Palestinian residents waking up, the soldiers guarding the
worshippers had to forcibly evict them. The military condemned
their "irresponsible behavior" and said they had endangered the
Not long afterward, the last Israelis had left. The tomb was
quiet, and Nablus reverted to Palestinian control.
AP correspondent Mohammed Daraghmeh contributed to this report.