The approximately 30 Israelis who sneaked into Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus late Saturday night are disciples of Rabbi Eliezer Berland, who is wanted by Israel Police on sexual abuse charges and is currently hiding out in South Africa.
Berland, the head of a Hasidic community called Shuvu Banim, ordered his disciples to go to the tomb and repair the damage caused when Palestinians torched it on Friday. A recording of his instructions was circulated among his disciples Saturday night.
Joseph’s Tomb is very important to the Shuvu Banim community, and Berland himself used to visit it periodically. Thus, when reports of the tomb’s torching reached him in South Africa, he ordered his disciples to take action.
“Everyone should take pails of whitewash,” he said in the recording. “Leave on Saturday night and be there at 2 A.M. Fill the car with pails of dry whitewash and containers of water, and [upon arriving] immediately mix the whitewash with the water and begin putting whitewash on the brushes.”
“Four or five cars should go ... and repaint the tomb,” he added.
But the disciples did not coordinate their entry with the Israel Defense Forces, and when they tried to enter the site, they were caught by the Palestinian police. The IDF said that Palestinian policemen arrested five of the Israelis and beat some of them before handing them over to the Israeli police.
The Palestinians summoned the IDF to extract the others, who will also face police investigation. One of the Israeli cars was torched by unknown assailants.
Berland is wanted for questioning by the police over a series of alleged sexual offenses, mainly toward women in the Shuvu Banim community. He fled the country to avoid arrest in April 2013, and since then has traveled to various countries in his effort to escape the law. He fled to South Africa a few months ago, after a court in the Netherlands, where he had been previously, ordered him extradited to Israel.
Joseph’s Tomb was repaired over the weekend in any event by contractors hired by the Palestinian Authority. At Israel’s request, however, no work was done on Shabbat.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas announced that the PA would pay for the repairs. Settler representatives opposed this offer, but Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall, said it should be accepted as part of the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian cooperation over the tomb.
Five years ago, when the PA last carried out renovations at the site (to repair damages caused when Palestinians torched it at the start of the second intifada in 2000), Rabinowitz issued a ruling stating that Jewish law permits Jewish holy sites to be renovated by Palestinians. The ruling was supported by then-Chief Rabbi Shmuel Amar, though settler leaders opposed the idea.
Rabinowitz said on Sunday that settler leaders opposed the PA’s current offer as well. But he disagreed, arguing that Abbas’ denunciation of the latest arson attack proves his good faith.
“My view is that we need to cooperate with the PA to preserve Joseph’s Tomb,” said Rabinowitz, who also denounced any attempt to visit the site without coordinating with the IDF. “There is no other option.”
“For years, the place was charred, but ever since I made my decision, together with the chief rabbis, this cooperation has proved itself,” he added. “Now, too, we need to look for ways to calm things down, not heat them up. I’m not applauding the arson; I condemn it, and I think the PA should have prevented it. But once it happened, cooperation is the right move and if Joseph’s Tomb is repaired in this way, it’s a welcome step.”
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