October 17, 2015

Saturday, October 17, 2015 - No comments

The Holy Site of Joseph's Tomb قبر يوسف, in Nablus Has Long Been the Target of Palestinian-Israeli Discord

Tomb of Joseph in 1908
Joseph's Tomb  (Hebrew: קבר יוסף‎, Kever Yosef, Arabic: قبر يوسف‎, Qabr Yūsuf) was set ablaze overnight in the West Bank amid unrest in the territory. The tomb is located at the eastern entrance to the valley that separates Mounts Gerizim and Ebal, some 230 metres (750 ft) north of Jacob's Well, on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus in the Palestinian Authority, near the site of biblical Shechem.  In the biblical tradition, this is the burial site of the son of Jacob who served the king of Egypt.

The heritage attack came as the Palestinian-led Ḥarakat al-Muqāwamah al-ʾIslāmiyyah (Islamic Resistance Movement), referred to by its acronym "Hamas" called for another day of ragein protest to the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.  Both events serve to further escalate tensions that in the past two weeks have taken the lives of dozens in both Israel and in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. 

The site of Joseph's tomb has been venerated throughout the ages by Samaritans, Christians, Jews, and Muslims.

Though the authenticity of Joseph’s Tomb has long been a matter of debate, its identification with Joseph is many centuries old. According to Jewish tradition Joseph's bones were returned from Egypt and buried in the town of Shechem. Shulamit Aloni, Israel's former Minister of Education, cited archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov, who asserted that the site contains the late Arab grave of a 19th century sheikh by the same name. The Muslim scholar believed to be buried there is Sheik Youssef Dawiqat, a cleric who is said to have healed the sick by reading them verses from the Koran.

But despite being the object of devotion by both Muslims and Jews, Joseph's Tomb has long been a flash point for violence against practitioners of the Jewish faith. The conflicts around the holy shrine underscore a stunning and long standing lack of regard for the sanctity of the place and the complexities of protecting just one of the many at risk religious sites in the Holy Land in its contested areas.

In addition to this week's fire Joseph's Tomb has been an ongoing bone of contention and symbol of discord between Palestinians and Jews for decades.

In the mid-1980s an Israeli Defence Forces military outpost was built at the site along with a yeshiva, Od Yosef Chai (Joseph Still Lives). By 2013 and due to its extremest views, the Israeli government cancelled its government funding support of the yeshiva's programs, due to the school's encouragement of violent actions and provocation against Palestinians and the security services.

On the eve of the Sukkot (the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles) at the end of September 1996 the site was fired upon during the the Western Wall Tunnel riots and six Israeli soldiers were killed.  During that incident, the tomb and army post were ransacked and the yeshiva, as well as hundreds of religious books, were burned.
Palestinians stand on the roof of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus
on October 7, 2000
Also in October 2000 during the Al-Aqsa Intifada the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) declared an earlier "day of rage" on October 6th, urging Palestinians to attack Israeli army outposts in the occupied territories.

Then-Prime Minister Ehud Barak ordered a unilateral retreat from the area around Joseph's tomb in order to prevent further loss of life to lower tensions after intense fighting left seventeen Palestinians and one Israeli soldier dead and wounded more than 170 people.

On October 7, 2000, based on a Palestinian agreement to protect the site, Israeli defence forces withdrew, and the last IDF soldiers evacuated religious site at 3:00 am. Palestinian policemen, who were supposed to take over the protection of the site, watched helplessly as a frustrated mob soon overran the shrine-  Palestinian Authorities said there was little they could do to stop the anger-led destruction.

As seen in the October 7, 2000 photo above, the rampaging rioters took out their frustrations by severely damaging much of the humble site. During the incident vandals attacked the tomb with pickaxes, sledgehammers and even with their bare hands. Jewish prayer books were ripped apart and their pages left scattering in the wind.  Furniture and religious objects were also burned. A rabbi, who had walked to the site on October 8th, hoping to salvage the Torah scrolls, was murdered. As a result of the increase in violence Isreali Defence Forces reduced the Jewish presence to the site to a once-monthly evening visit, trucking in worshipers on that day by the busload.  This change in visitation however did little to decrease tension between the two religious factions and left the site extremely vulnerable to sporadic attack.
Crypt destruction inside Joseph’s Tomb.  Photo published
in March 2003, the two pillars beside the crypt are still visible.

While previous desecration to the site were severe, up until March 2003 there were no reports of damage to the cenotaph which sits inside the shrine. Sometime between 2000 and 2003, the crypt was smashed into the pile of rubble seen in the image to the right.  The site remained in shambles for years as can also be seen in this later photo article by New York Times photojournalist Rina Castelnuovo who shot images of worshipers still gathering in the detritus.

In September 2007 during a visit for Chol Hamoed Sukkot, it was discovered that the tomb had been vandalised even further; this time the inner spaces had been filled with garbage and set alight.  In an act of reconciliation, a group of Palestinians set to work to clean the tomb in November of that same year only to have determined vandals return in February 2008 setting fire to by igniting tires they brought inside.

Ten months later on December 23, 2008 the IDF accompanied a team of workers from the Shechem Echad organization to Joseph's Tomb. With funding by anonymous donors, and experience restoring historic Jewish graves throughout Samaria, the team set about repainting the blackened walls of the defaced site, and to restoring the tomb's cenotaph. Their restoration work would be short-lived and did little to deter further site damage.  Not long after they finished, fresh footprints where found in the newly poured and not yet dried cement.

April 23, 2009 the site was defaced again. Boot prints were found on the grave itself and swastikas had been painted on the tomb's walls along with ominous graffiti depicting a blood-dripping sword and a boot hovering above a Star of David symbol underscoring that holy places in contested areas create the potential for military, theological, and political clashes, as long as there is political divide.

On April 24, 2011 a skirmish between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian youths at the site resulted in more tires being set on fire, this time at the entrance of the tomb. According to a less than clear investigation by the Israel Defence Forces and the Palestinian Authority, the event seems to have been sparked when Palestinian security forces opened fire on three cars full of Israelis who entered the West Bank compound of Joseph's Tomb without IDF permission, breaking through a local checkpoint. How the two incidences fit together has never been fully explained.

On Sunday July 6, 2014 angry Palestinians tried to again tried to firebomb Joseph’s Tomb as riots in the area dragged into their fifth day following the Shin Bet confirmation that several Jewish suspects had been arrested in connection with the murder of East Jerusalem teenager, Muhammed Abu Khdeir. The rioters were stopped from damaging the tomb by Palestinian Authority security forces who used tear gas to deter the assailants from approaching close enough to do serious damage.

During Shabbat on August 1, 2015 Palestinian vandals again targeted the site and tried to burn down the ancient tomb as a "revenge" attack for the lethal arson by Israeli extremists that killed a Palestinian infant in the West Bank a day earlier.

On September 21, 2015 rioters hurled stones and firebombs, and rolled burning tires at Israel Defense Forces soldiers guarding twenty busloads of Jewish worshipers who had come to pray at the tomb during a Yom Kippur Eve visit. One soldier was injured.

As reported by Palestinian news agency WAFA today's most recent attack on the Nablus tomb compound has drawn sharp condemnation from Palestinian Authority President, Mahmoud Abbas. Abbas denounced the arson as an “illegal act that harms our culture, religion and ethics” and ordered the damages to be repaired, adding that the authorities would be opening an investigation to find the culprits responsible. Israel's military estimated that 100 people converged on the tomb before Palestinian security forces arrived and were able to push them back and extinguish the blaze.

But despite political condemnation of the destruction, some Palestinians and Israeli settlers in the area remain far from reconciliation.  Leaders of the extreme right yeshiva, The Od Yosef Hai that was once located at Joseph’s Tomb and then moved to Yitzhar, referred to the torching of the tomb as a pogrom.  Frequented by violent Jewish settlers, the yeshiva's aggressive doctrine has called upon settlers and their supporters to exact revenge against their opponents and members of its leadership have been known to actively condone the use of violence.

In the past, some of the controversial yeshiva's students have allegedly been involved in 'price tag' attacks against Palestinian villages and area security forces demonstrating that finding an accord is still a long way off. According to the Hebrew news site site Kipa Od Yosef Hai has demanded that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the army “immediately and completely cancel the terror monstrosity known as the ‘Oslo Agreements,’ and bring back Jewish control over Nablus and the rest of Israel.”

The yeshiva's, rigid stance underscores that shared religious sites in the Holy Land revered by both Jews and Muslims, and that anchor competing religious and national identities have been, and will remain, physical and diplomatic battlefields for Israel and Palestine. Rooted in strife, the significance of sites like Joseph's Tomb and Temple Mount/Haram el-Sharif, one of the most important religious sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, magnify the religious significance of the location.  This gives them symbolic and strategic importance in the political tensions making them vulnerable during the ongoing Israel-Palestine conflict.

Protecting heritage symbols like Joseph's tomb in spite of heightened religious and ethnic tensions will requires cooperation not just between Israeli and Palestinian political leaders and security authorities, but also the area's joint religious leaders who serve to shape the meaning and value that sacred places hold for believers and the attitudes of their respective followers.