|A Jewish pilgrim prayed outside Joseph’s Tomb, a holy place in Nablus, West Bank. Tour buses arrive monthly. (Ronen Zvulen/ Reuters)|
Tensions high at West Bank holy site
Arabs fret as more Jews visit
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, unnervng 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 with ultra-Orthodox Jews in long black coats and settler teens in jeans and T-shirts.
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.’’
Nablus was a militant hotbed in the Arab uprising last decade. The city’s Arabs and residents of nearby settlements, considered hard-line by many other settlers, view each other with animosity.