A passion for the grave
Since Rabin's time, Rachels's Tomb has stood largely desolate in its fortifications and the Palestinians around it have continued to languish in their suffering. Occasionally, a Jewish worshiper shows up at the checkpoint, arrogantly bypassing the line of few Palestinians.
Here is the whole story in one grave: For those of us who were children in the 1950s and 1960, Rachel's Tomb was our heart's desire. In those days, nearly every home had one of the bronze sculptures or oil paintings that depicted the site, souvenirs of a small, modest stone structure capped with a dome, reminiscent of a mosque. We knew then that it was a holy site for our people and that it lay beyond the hills of darkness, in forbidden Bethlehem.
Following the occupation, we went to see it and were thrilled: The artwork of our youth had become a real place. Shortsighted, however, we didn't see what lay around it. Arik Lavie sang, "Look, Rachel, look, / Look, Lord of the universe... / They have returned to their borders;" and nearly all of us were certain that Rachel's Tomb in Palestinian Bethlehem, opposite the Aida refugee camp, is in our land.
Then the first intifada opened our eyes and woke us up. Much blood was shed around the tomb; when the soldiers who defended it became a target in the war against the occupation, the tomb became a fortress and nothing in its appearance evoked the innocent domed tomb of our childhood any longer. Most of us stayed away from the place, but the pious and settlers continued to visit the site occasionally, mainly on holidays or in the course of their defiant demonstrations: Huddled close together in armored trucks, protected by armed troops, they were rushed along the road between the checkpoint at the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem and the tomb, which was, in the meantime, swallowed up between the protective walls that were built around it.
When Yitzhak Rabin spoke of transfering the tomb, along with all of Bethlehem, to Palestinian control, within the framework of the Oslo accords, Hanan Porat, from the national-religious movement, and Meir Porush, from the ultra-Orthodox community, went to see him: Porat pressed and Porush wept. The poet Yitzhak Shalev wrote at the time: "I see barriers arising again on the road to Efrata... Jews waiting for the permission of those in the hobnailed boots to visit Rachel's Tomb."
Rabin gave in and the tomb remained in Area C (Israeli security and Palestinian civilian control). The barriers indeed sprang up and the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces imprisoned the Palestinian residents of Bethlehem - but this was no longer of any consequence to Shalev, Porat or Porush.
Since then, the tomb has stood largely desolate in its fortifications and the Palestinians around it have continued to languish in their suffering. Occasionally, a Jewish worshiper shows up at the checkpoint, arrogantly bypassing the line of few Palestinians who are permitted to pass through the checkpoint and are forced to wait in humiliation. He gets into an IDF armored vehicle and visits the tomb under the army's protection. It is doubtful whether he bothers to even look right or left. Should he do so, he would see harsh scenes to which no moral person should lend a hand.
The checkpoint just outside the tomb is half-empty. Only residents of East Jerusalem are still permitted to cross there. The 45,000 residents of the city where Rachel is buried have been incarcerated there for more than two years. Until less than a month ago, they were also under curfew. All the businesses in the area - souvenir shops, dental clinics, restaurants and a variety of stores - the source of the livelihood of thousands of people who have no other alternative, are sealed shut. The IDF treats their goods as abandoned property.
To the right of the road leading to the tomb, the worshiper will discover a broad area that was recently "shaved" by IDF bulldozers and then fenced off with barbed wire. This was the site of The Friends restaurant of Issa Maali, from the nearby Deheisheh refugee camp - a working-class establishment that provided a living for 20 people. Alongside were two brick factories. They were demolished to ensure the safety of the Jewish worshiper and the soldiers who are there to protect him. The IDF did not even bother to inform Maali that his property was going to be leveled so that he could at least remove his equipment. His 13-year-old son, Rami, had his hand broken when he was beaten here once by a reserve soldier, who was tried for the incident.
Every so often, the worshiper will notice a group of Palestinians that is being led to the checkpoint: They were "illegally present" in Israel, trying to sneak into Jerusalem to find work. A few wanted to pray at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is out of bounds for them. The principle of freedom of worship applies to Jews only.
On the other side of the road that leads to the tomb, the Jewish worshiper will see the ramshackle dwellings of the Aida refugee camp. This is the home of first-time refugees (from 1948) and of some second-time refugees, too (from 1967). Israel now plans to build a road and a wall, apparently on the land of the refugee camp, to mark the tomb's annexation. Under cover of the darkness that has descended on us, in which everything is permitted - demolition, deportation, liquidation, arrest, imprisonment and for a tank to attack a family working in a vineyard with flechette shells - it is also okay to annex territory wherever and whenever we please.
The prime minister, Ariel Sharon, stated in the cabinet meeting last week that authorized the annexation of Rachel's Tomb that everyone must have access to the site, "including the elderly woman holding baskets who has waited for years to get to the tomb." The images of the thousands of elderly Palestinian women who are forced to trek through open country and on rough paths do not bother him.
The religious parties turned on the pressure; the mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, who is interested mainly in enlarging the area of his city and not in what goes on inside it, added more pressure; the Labor Party remained mute, as usual; and the tomb was annexed. Again a rabbi cried - this time, it was the mentor of the Shas party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef; and this time, from joy. His representative, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, said that now he would take steps to get Joseph's Tomb, in Nablus, annexed as well. And really, why not? What's the difference? And why not annex the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron - is it any less holy?
Rachel will weep for her children; the rabbis and settlers will weep with joy; the life of the Palestinians will become even more degraded; and more blood will be shed needlessly - but the tomb will be in our hands.