Jerusalem Court Grants Rabbis Custody Over Nablus Tomb, Violating Status Quo

Joseph's Tomb is located in the West Bank city of Nablus which is under full Palestinian control since the Oslo Accords were signed.

The Jerusalem Rabbinical Court has awarded legal and administrative custody over Joseph's Tomb in Nablus to two rabbis who have been involved in organizing visits to the site without the army's permission.

Nablus is located in Area A, the part of the West Bank that the Oslo Accords assigned to full Palestinian control. Consequently, the Israel Defense Forces deems it dangerous to visit except in organized groups coordinated in advance with the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the Oslo Accords require both sides to refrain from unilateral changes in the status quo in the territories.

Nevertheless, rabbinical court judge Rabbi Haim Rosenthal decided that rabbis Shlomo Ben-Shimon and Mordechai Gross, who head the organization Shechem Ehad ("One Nablus" ), are the "representatives entitled to appear, legally and publicly, before any court or institution on matters connected to" the tomb, a religious pilgrimage site.

The two had asked the court to recognize them as the site's sole legal custodians, asserting that unspecified "army officials" had asked them to set up "a legal entity that will manage, operate and supervise the holy site" so as to increase the number of visitors. The court granted this request for the next 18 months, after which it will review the decision. Ostensibly, therefore, it gave them permission to approve visits by Jewish worshippers.

The court also approved their appointments of Netanel Shnir, Yoel Peretz and Yaakov Levy to run the site in practice. Shnir, another key figure in Shechem Ehad, was quoted on the website Hakol Hayehudi in November 2010 as saying that when the IDF refused to approve requests for permits to visit the tomb, "We'd go in even without the army's okay. We always sought to work cooperatively, but if it didn't happen then we'd do it anyway."

The report added that Shnir viewed the ultimate goal of this activity as returning to Nablus "to settle there and inherit the land."

Army response

The IDF Spokesman's Office told Haaretz that the claim that the rabbis are henceforth in charge of the site is ridiculous. "Visits to Joseph's Tomb are coordinated by the Civil Administration and arranged by the Israel Police, in coordination with rabbinical figures, including the rabbis mentioned, and the Palestinian Authority," it said in a statement.

An army source added that the person responsible for the site is the officer in charge of religious affairs in the Civil Administration, and that the rabbinical court has no authority whatsoever over the West Bank. He also said the IDF has no intention of changing the status quo at the tomb.

If the army source is right, this means the court exceeded its authority. Moreover, it made a decision with potentially far-reaching political consequences on the basis of erroneous information.

In fact, the Defense Ministry is soon planning to issue a tender of its own to transfer responsibility for the logistics of visits to the tomb to an outside party.

In their application to the court Ben-Shimon and Gross relied on a legal opinion by attorney Daniel Kramer, an expert in religious trusts, arguing that Joseph's Tomb was a Jewish religious trust.

Their petition noted that while every year more than 20,000 Jews visit the tomb, which is open from midnight to 4 A.M. once a month, "Everyone involved, including military officials, agrees that this situation doesn't at all satisfy the enormous demand." The petition went on to say that senior defense officials told the petitioners "that freer and more secure access to the site will be possible after the legal issue of the site's management is settled."

Nir Kafri