Beyond Temple Mount: A Look at Contested Holy Sites in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Nothing is sacred in the latest round of violence, with religious shrines proving recurring flash points.

Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim
Joseph's Tomb in Nablus ablaze in an attack at the site in 2015.
Joseph's Tomb in Nablus ablaze in an attack at the site in 2015.Credit: Screen grab
Ron Ben-Tovim
Ron Ben-Tovim

The holy site known to Jews as Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) has played a major role in sparking the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian violence. But there are other contested shrines, sacred to multiple religions, that are also fueling the conflict and have been the focus of violent clashes.

Joseph's Tomb

The first to catch fire, literally, was Joseph’s Tomb, which was attacked by firebomb-wielding Palestinians last week. Believed to be the final resting place of the biblical patriarch Joseph, it is located on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Nablus and is revered by Jews, Muslims, Christians and Samaritans.

As with most contested holy sites, including the Temple Mount, some Palestinian leaders have argued there is no proof that the site is holy to Jews in any way, and that any Jewish link to it is fabricated and used as a political ploy.

Jewish worshippers at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus.Credit: Moti Milrod

The tomb has been a constant flash point since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War, and has been the site of multiple attacks, fatalities and takeovers. Situated in Area A, it was evacuated by Israeli forces and handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 2000, leading to its looting by a Palestinian mob.

While the PA has continued to maintain control of the site, Jewish worshippers have been able to visit over recent years either independently or under protection of the Israel Defense Forces.

But the fight over holy sites is not only taking place on the ground. Last Wednesday, UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural heritage body, adopted a resolution asserting that two other major holy sites – the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem – “are an integral part of Palestine” and warned Israel against taking unilateral moves concerning them.

This draft, which came after a similar text was backed by the UN body earlier this year, originally contained a clause that laid claim to Jerusalem’s Western Wall – the closest point to Judaism’s holiest site where Jews are permitted to pray – as a space reserved for Muslims. But the passage was stricken with the support of UNESCO director general Irina Bokova, who said in a statement earlier this week that the UN body must pass resolutions “that do not further inflame tensions on the ground.”

Tomb of the Patriarchs

Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.Credit: Ilan Assayag

The Tomb of the Patriarchs is believed to be the burial site of Jewish patriarchs and matriarchs Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, as well as Jacob and Leah, who are also revered by Muslim believers. During centuries of Ottoman rule, Jews were not allowed to enter the site – which is the second holiest place in Judaism. It was during the Turkish rule that a mosque was constructed there over a Second Temple-era structure.

Under the Oslo Accords, authority over Hebron was split between Israel and the PA, with the Tomb of the Patriarchs remaining under Israeli control. Following the massacre perpetrated at the site by Baruch Goldstein in 1994, in which he killed 29 Palestinian worshippers, and the Wye River agreement of 1996, most of the site was handed over to the Waqf (a Muslim religious trust), with a small section reserved for Jewish worship.

Rachel's Tomb

Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem.Credit: Tomer Neuberg

Like most holy sites in the West Bank, Rachel’s Tomb has been the scene of violence and attacks from 1967 onward, with the tomb remaining under Israeli control despite nearby Bethlehem falling under PA sovereignty. The burial site of the matriarch Rachel, it has long been frequented by Jewish worshippers. Sir Moses Montefiore paid for the refurbishment and expansion of the tomb in 1841, adding its now familiar dome. Muslims see the site as part of a larger Muslim cemetery compound situated in the vicinity of the tomb.

Burial site of Ithamar and Eleazar

There are a few smaller sites that also serve as constant flash points. One of these is the burial site of two of the sons of the high priest Aaron, Ithamar and Eleazar, as well as Eleazar’s son Pinchas, revered by Jews as well as Samaritans.

Located within the limits of the Palestinian village of Awarta, near the settlement of Itamar, the shrines are visited by Jewish worshippers on specific days, usually accompanied by army forces. Several clashes have been reported over the years between local Palestinians and IDF forces securing Jewish worshippers.

In 2012, it was reported that the site had been desecrated, with vandals spray-painting slogans in praise of one of the Palestinians involved in the deadly attack on a home in Itamar, when five members of the Fogel family were murdered.

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