On One Thing They Agree: 'Allahu Akhbar'

"And it came to pass after these things that Joshua, the son of Nun, the servant of the Lord, died being 110 years old. And they buried him in the border of his inheritance in Tinat-serah, which is in Mount Ephraim, on the north side of the hill of Gaash." (Joshua 24:29).

Joshua, the only pupil of our forefather Moses, who married Rahab, the prostitute from Jericho (after she converted, of course), is considered a very saintly figure. Since the soul of a pious man is said to float above his grave once a year on the day of his death, the believers come that day to prostrate themselves on the grave and voice their entreaties.

However, according to tradition, the grave attributed to the conqueror of the land, as well as the graves of his father Nun and of Caleb Ben Yufuneh (one of the spies sent to view the land), are located in the heart of the Palestinian village of Kifl Harith, opposite Ariel on the other side of the Trans-Samaria highway. The village has about 2,500 Palestinian inhabitants, and the army made arrangements for the arrival of a similar number of worshipers for the "hilulah" (celebration) at Joshua's grave last month. Entrance to the village by vehicle was forbidden. Anyone who wanted to reach Joshua's grave or home had to walk some 20 minutes along the roads, past the houses of the village, which was immersed in darkness and silence as if all its inhabitants had deserted in honor of the event. Not even a dog was heard. Every few meters, armed soldiers were posted, wrapped up in their protective flak jackets. They were there to protect the Jewish worshipers as well as the village residents, who have been attacked by extremists more than once.

In the center of the village, in the square outside the large mosque, Joshua's grave was lit up by a noisy generator courtesy of Bratslav followers. The grave itself bears a structure from the Mameluke-Ottoman period in the 15th century, and a banner announcing the hilulah. The Hebrew banner has been swallowed up among all the Arabic and English graffiti adorning the walls of the grave, praising the acts of the martyrs of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, Fatah and Allah.

Avraham Friedman, an ultra-Orthodox man who described himself as being from "the Satmer race," called the people there "right-wing extremists who look for trouble in the territories, and irritate people of other nations - Bratslav people, Jerusalemites, those who are newly religious and other hill-top youth, thugs and hooligans." He came to this place, he said, "instead of someone else."

A table in the lit-up square bore cakes and soft drinks. Religious books and discs were for sale nearby. Soldiers guarded the worshipers, and military vehicles rushed back and forth, patroling the village's empty lanes. The worshipers kept coming, from midnight until the first signs of dawn. Group after group, they entered the alcoves in the graves of Caleb Ben Yefuneh, Nun and Joshua, lit candles and prayed. The small number of women present were forced to make do with the exterior wall of the large structure, separated from the crowd of men by a sheet. The Bratslav followers recited a prayer, while the others read Psalms. A giant Israeli Pistacia tree has grown from inside Joshua's grave, and some people climbed onto the roof to break off whole branches to serve as a talisman or amulet.

When dawn broke, the muezzin sounded the call to prayer. A single old man appeared from one of the lanes, ignoring the dancing groups, and slowly wended his way toward the mosque, as he does every day. One of the Jews approached him and greeted him in broken Arabic: "Allah akhbar!" The Muslim man stared at him, and replied with an "Allahu akhbar" of his own. It seems to be the only thing on which they agree.

Immediately after that, the commander of the military unit appeared and handed out garbage bags to the worshipers, ordering them to pick up all the garbage they had left behind in the square. When someone complained, saying "let the Arabs clean up," the commander threatened to send everyone away immediately.

"What is this?" the commander asked. "Is this your home?" In minutes, all the garbage was collected, and the commander put on his phylacteries and prayer shawl, and joined in the Shaharit morning prayer. The voices of the worshipers merged with the sounds of the muezzin.