Right-wing Israelis Barricade Themselves in West Bank Jewish Holy Site

A nighttime operation planned by Bratslav Hasidim and right-wing activists from an organization called Garin He'arim Ha'ivriot ended with 55 arrests.

It was hard not to rub one's eyes in disbelief: At 4:30 A.M., just as Israel Defense Forces soldiers were preparing to leave Joseph's Tomb in Nablus, 55 ultra-Orthodox Jews and right-wing activists burst from adjacent alleys, sweating from their rush to arrive in time. Suprising the soldiers, they barricaded themselves inside the tomb complex. It was the climax of an operation planned last week, with the goal of restoring Israeli sovereignty to Joseph's Tomb. The operation was planned by Bratslav Hasidim - students of Rabbi Eliezer Berland from Jerusalem - and right-wing activists from an organization called Garin He'arim Ha'ivriot, which seeks an Israeli return to Nablus, Jericho and the section of Hebron under Palestinian control.

The plan was simple. Yesterday, for the first time since a Bratslav Hasid named Ben-Yosef Livnat was shot to death by a Palestinian police officer during an uncoordinated visit to the tomb last month, the IDF permitted a coordinated, well-guarded visit to the site. Throughout the night between Monday and Tuesday long armored-plated buses packed with worshipers pulled up, disgorged their passengers and collected others who were ready to leave. The last buses were slated to contain some 200 activists carrying chains with which they intended to attach themselves to the structure, and nail-studded bars to puncture the buses' tires.

Bratslav in Nablus - Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

The evening began quietly. An IDF battalion took up positions in the city, and the worshipers began arriving. They included Noam Livnat, Ben-Yosef's father, and Haim Fogel, whose son was murdered by Palestinian terrorists in Itamar two months ago.

At about 3 A.M. the activists began their preparations. Some hid under the buses until they were found and forcibly removed; others hid in the bathrooms. Still others hid in the shrubbery, and were found about half an hour later. The soldiers, who had received prior information about the plan, combed the compound to make sure no one was left. The buses containing the 200 activists, which had been waiting outside the city, were stopped by the police.

At that point 55 people got off one of the buses and began racing into Nablus. Running at a speed that prompted some observers to wonder why they were in yeshiva rather than serving in an IDF combat unit, they crossed the city, passed the refugee camps and stormed into the compound.

They planned to remain barricades inside until it was full daylight, as that would force the army to send in additional troops to protect them and escort them from of the city. That is precisely how the first Jewish settlement in Hebron began decades earlier.

After brief, fruitless negotiationa, a Border Police commander gave the signal. Working in teams of four, the officers picked up the worshipers bodily and began transporting them to the Ariel police station. Ultimately, 55 people were arrested. Some, who made a disturbance in the police van, were charged with vandalizing a police vehicle in addition to violating army orders. Twenty of the detainees were brought for a remand hearing in Petah Tikva, but all were released with no conditions.

Yesterday, as the last of them were making their way home, another demonstration was held, at the entrance to Nablus. It was conducted by a more establishment organization, the Samaria Settlers Council, and including prominent figures such as Rabbi Zalman Melamed of the settlement of Beit El. The demonstrators later boarded buses and asked the IDF to let them enter Nablus. The army refused.

Both actions were part of a wide-ranging effort launched after Livnat was killed. In the absence of a freeze on construction in the settlements, and with the threat of new peace efforts looming, the right has united around a demand to reestablish a permanent Israeli presence at Joseph's Tomb. The Yesha Council of Settlers has been exerting political pressure over this issue, and has so far gained the support of Justice Minister Yaakov Neeman, Culture Minister Limor Livnat (an aunt of Ben-Yosef Livnat, who was killed in Nablus last week ) and Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom. Local settlement committees have organized nonviolent demonstrations and prayer sessions, while more militant groups such as Garin He'arim Ha'ivriot and the Bratslav Hasidim are planning more unauthorized trips to the tomb.

The army and police are watching all these efforts with concern. As one officer in the IDF Central Command said, "reestablishing a permanent presence at Joseph's Tomb would require a significant deployment of troops. From our standpoint, this isn't even on the agenda. People have no grasp of what this would actually entail."