tomb - AP - June 27 2011
Soldiers and Jewish men praying at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus on May 30 during an authorized visit. Photo by AP
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It was like any other ultra-Orthodox festival, or hilula. An ancient grave, groups of men and women entering from different sides to pray devoutly for health, wealth, righteous offspring or at least a decent match. Occasionally, a venerable rabbi was ushered in with his entourage for a few minutes of private contemplation and in the courtyard, greasy tables piled high with rugelach, slices of peppery-sweet Yerushalmi kugel and bottles of fizzy flavored water in lurid colors. But along with the 1,400 pilgrims, came a thousand soldiers, border police, riot police and plain "blue" police, in dozens of armored vehicles and even an unmanned surveillance plane watching from above. And while the faithful prayed at Joseph's Tomb, from midnight on Sunday until the sun rose on Monday morning over Gerizim, the Mount of the Blessing, the 30,000 inhabitants of Balata refugee camp and much of the rest of the southern neighborhoods of Nablus remained under unofficial curfew.

There are at least two ways to look at the monthly prayers at Joseph's Tomb. The Oslo Accords allow for freedom of worship at all holy sites in the West Bank. As a result, the IDF maintained a permanent presence by the tomb after Nablus was handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 1995. But following Palestinian attacks on the site in 1996 when six soldiers were killed, and again in 2000 at the start of the second intifada, when Border Police soldier Madhat Yousef bled to death as Israeli and Palestinian officers were trying to negotiate a way to evacuate him, the IDF decided it could not continue securing the site, and on October 7, 2000, abandoned Joseph's Tomb.

Immediately after the evacuation, Palestinian rioters stormed the shrine and set it ablaze. So Jews should certainly be allowed to pray there freely. And if the Palestinians try to hinder them from exercising that right, then it is the job of the IDF to ensure that they can do so safely.

But things are rarely that simple.

As a number of officers of all ranks admitted to me on Monday, the great majority of 1,000 security personnel were there not to protect Jews from terrorists, but to keep the Jews in order.

Some of the soldiers, mainly the teams from the "Duvdevan" unit, discreetly placed in the alleyways around Balata, were stationed in case a terror group tried to shoot or set off a bomb aimed at those coming to prayer, but the rest came mainly to protect the local Palestinians from summary reprisals by the Jews and to protect the Jews from themselves.

They manned dozens of roadblocks that were set up to block people from coming through independently, instead of in one of the convoy of bullet-proof of buses, and made sure that after half an hour of prayer at the tomb, they left peacefully.

From Operation Defensive Shield in early 2002, when the IDF began to gradually re-establish its control over the entire West Bank, the army has been devoting considerable resources to accompanying groups into Nablus for periodic visits to Joseph's Tomb, but for some this has never been enough.

It started in April, 2002 during the operation itself, while the IDF was still fighting in Nablus. Students from the Breslav Yeshiva "Shuvu Banim" in Jerusalem made common cause with the settlers from the area to smuggle themselves inside and reach the tomb. Dozens of young men and women were running around a war zone, trying to evade the army patrols sent to round them up.

Senior officers have tried time and again to warn the leader of Shuvu Banim, renowned mystic Rabbi Eliezer Berland, of the inherent dangers, but to no avail. For the last nine years, they have been playing a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with the security forces, quite often while carrying out acts of random vandalism and violence toward Palestinian civilians.

Arrests, fines, warnings, none of them have had any effect. Neither have at least half a dozen cases in which Palestinian police shot at them as they drove through Nablus at breakneck speed.

Palestinian policemen shot at another convoy of Breslavers near the tomb two months ago, killing Ben-Joseph Livnat and wounding four others, but they still keep coming. Two weeks later, when the IDF coordinated for them a secure visit to the tomb, dozens still tried to run away from the convoy and stay in Nablus after the allocated time of prayer was over.

Security coordination with the Palestinian Authority is close. Allowing Jews into the tomb for regular prayers should be a simple procedure, say IDF officers in the West Bank. If only the Breslavers and groups of "hilltop youths" from the neighboring settlements would play ball. But time and again, they have proved they will not. That is why 1,000 soldiers and police officers had to stay awake around Nablus on Sunday night.

I asked a senior IDF general this week why the army has to spend millions on a brigade-scale operation just to protect a small fanatic and violent group, who have repeatedly failed to cooperate and regularly risk their own and others' lives. His instinctive answer was the standard soldier's refrain: "Those are the orders we have from the political echelon - ask them." But then he added, "not everyone who wants to pray at the tomb are like that. Why should we turn away a woman from Kiryat Ata who wants to come all the way to Nablus to pray to Joseph just because of a small group of idiots? Isn't that what freedom of worship is about?"

He had a point. Not everyone who made the trip on Sunday night were Breslavers or radical settlers. Many of them were "normal" Israelis, swept up in the growing cult of grave-worship, traipsing from shrine to shrine, beseeching the long-dead sages to intercede up above. The hard core were concentrated in the last two buses to arrive, and hundreds of riot-police surrounded the tomb, making sure they left before the sun rose. Another general, a veteran of West Bank dealings was more succinct. "One telephone call to the Palestinian security apparatus is enough to organize regular prayers at the tomb. Instead we have this ridiculous, dangerous and wasteful show, as a result of our weakness in the face of a wave of religious extremism."

Of course, no serious archaeologist or historian believes the sheikh's grave in Nablus is really the final resting place of one of the most fascinating characters of the bible. But when did serious academic research ever count for anything in these matters?

For various mystical reasons, Joseph, son of Jacob, has come to symbolize for certain factions of Orthodoxy, the epitome of Jewish fanaticism (they see that as a good thing ). Though if the bible is anything to go by, he should certainly be seen as the most cosmopolitan of the twelve brothers; living most of his life in Egypt and becoming Pharaoh's right-hand man, marrying a local woman, saving the ancient world from famine. Joseph could have been a unifying figure, a symbol of forgiveness to brothers, a bridge between Jews and the outside world, encompassing tradition and modernity. Instead, we have once again surrendered to the most racist, parochial and violent minority of the Jewish people.