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Joseph's Tomb, an Ongoing Israeli-Palestinian Flashpoint

The holy site has long served as a target of Palestinian anger as well as a dangerous and sometimes deadly pilgrimage destination for Jews

Palestinians put their flag on top of Joseph's Tomb after an Israeli withdrawal from the holy site in Nablus in 2000
Palestinians put their flag on top of Joseph's Tomb after an Israeli withdrawal from the holy site in Nablus in 2000Credit: REUTERS

UPDATE: Israeli commander invokes 'promised land,' endangers troops entering Joseph's Tomb

A mob set ablaze on Saturday Joseph's Tomb, a Jewish holy site in Nablus whose status as a pilgrimage destination for Jews in the heart of the northern West Bank has often aroused Palestinian anger and occasional attacks.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz denounced the attack and called it a "serious violation of freedom of worship in one of the holiest places for every Jew."

The attack took place amidst rising tensions in the wake of a string of Palestinian shooting attacks against Israeli civilians. It is only the latest such assault on a site which is seen as sacred to Jews, Muslims, Christians and Samaritans alike.

The tomb, identified as the resting place of the Biblical Joseph, sits on the slope of Mount Gerizim in Nablus and near the Balata refugee camp. The army, in coordination with Palestinian security forces, escorts Jewish worshipers to the site several times a year.

It has been a constant flashpoint since Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six-Day War, and has been the site of multiple attacks, fatalities and takeovers.

While some Jews believe the biblical Joseph is buried in the tomb, Muslims say a sheikh is buried there. Academics have raised serious questions about the site’s authenticity noting a lack of archaeological corroboration. The current structure surrounding the tomb dates back to the 19th century.

Joseph's Tomb was not included in the grave list of holy sites which was transferred to the Palestinians as a result of the second Oslo agreement signed in 1995. When the Israeli army pulled out of Nablus that same year following the agreement, Od Yosef Hai, a yeshiva founded in the 1980s, its name a Biblical reference, became a Jewish and Israeli enclave in the area.

On October 7, 2000, the IDF decided it could not continue securing Joseph's Tomb and abandoned the site. This followed attacks on the tomb 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.

Immediately after the evacuation, Palestinian rioters stormed the shrine and set it ablaze.

Since 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 has also struggled with unapproved visits.

Over the years, visitors, especially followers of convicted sex offender Rabbi Eliezer Berland, play a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with security forces, quite often while carrying out acts of random vandalism and violence toward Palestinian civilians.

The visitors have not been deterred by arrests, fines and warnings nor by at least half a dozen cases in which Palestinian police shot at them as they drove through Nablus at breakneck speed.

In 2011, Ben-Yosef Livnat, the 25-year-old nephew of then-Science and Culture Minister Limor Livnat, was killed and three of his friends were wounded by a Palestinian policeman after visiting the area without clearing it with the IDF.

In 2015, hundreds of Palestinian youth set fire with Molotov cocktails to parts of the Joseph's Tomb complex in a riot which was ultimately put down by Palestinian security forces.

Overnight into Monday, only days after the latest incident at the site, Palestinians shot and injured two Israelis who went through an unmanned checkpoint in the West Bank city of Nablus.

The two men, identified as members of the Bratslav Hasidic movement, were lightly wounded and taken to a hospital for medical treatment, indicating that the violence at the contested holy site is far from over.

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