An official delegation made up of activists, rabbis, and arson specialists utilized the cover of darkness to visit Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus in the middle of the night on Sunday night, after the spot experienced its worst vandalism in 15 years last week.
Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Samaria Regional Council Head Yossi Dagan, and Samaria Chief Rabbi Elyakim Levanon led the delegation to assess the damage in a trip coordinated with the Israel Defense Forces — a requirement for all visits to the site.
The previous night, overnight between Saturday and Sunday, a group of about 30 Israelis tried to access the site without prior coordination with the army, ostensibly to check the damage at the site. Five members of the group were accosted by Palestinian security forces and beaten before being handed over to Israel, and the IDF extricated the rest of the Israelis.
The stone grave marker of Joseph’s Tomb, replaced a few years ago after riots in the building in 2000, has been broken, along with parts of the ceiling and floor, according to Samaria Regional spokesman David Ha’Ivri. The fire also damaged other parts of the building, Ha’Ivri said.
Joseph’s Tomb, just east of Nablus, is located in Area A, which means the Palestinian Authority has full security and civilian control there. The Oslo Accords designated Joseph’s Tomb as one of two holy Jewish sites that could remain under Israeli control in Area A, explained the former chief of the IDF’s Civil Administration from 2002 to 2005, Brig. Gen. (ret) Ilan Paz. The other site is the remains of a 6th- or 7th-century synagogue in Jericho with a mosaic depicting a shofar and the words “Peace unto Israel,” which also housed a tiny yeshiva at some points.
Paz, who is also a senior member of the Geneva Initiative, which advocates for a two-state solution, said the Oslo Accords require the Palestinian Authority to maintain and protect the site and allow Jewish worshipers to pray there, though that demand is not always fulfilled.
Joseph’s Tomb has had a violent history in the past few decades. In 1996, six soldiers were killed there during riots. After the Second Intifada started, a major fight at the site between Israeli and Palestinian security forces on October 1, 2000, wounded 19-year-old Druze policeman Madhat Yusuf. Palestinian security forces prevented his medical evacuation for more than five hours, and Yusuf died at the scene.
Following Yusuf’s death, then-prime minister Ehud Barak ordered all security forces out of the area. During this time, Palestinian forces who were fixing the site painted the dome of the tomb green, the color of Islam, fueling fears in some Jewish circles that the Palestinians planned to turn the site into a mosque. Due to international pressure, the Palestinians repainted the dome white soon after, said Shmuel Berkovits, a lawyer and professor who is an expert in holy sites and was an adviser to the Camp David Accords.
In 2002, the army began to coordinate sporadic Israeli visits to the tomb. For the past decade, Jewish visitors have been able to make trips to the site with prior coordination between the Samaria Regional Council and the IDF.
“Due to the importance of the place for the Jewish nation, and in order to enable freedom of worship at the site, the entrance of Jews is carried out in coordination and under the accompaniment of IDF forces,” an army spokesperson said Sunday.
In April 2011, a Palestinian policeman killed Ben-Yosef Livnat, the nephew of former sports and culture minister Limor Livnat, as he tried to visit the site with a group of Breslav Hasidim who had not coordinated the trip with the IDF.
The site is one of three biblical real estate transactions mentioned in the Torah. The two other sites purchased for money from the local population are the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, explained Yair Almakyas, the director of Shomron Field School.
The New Testament mentions that Jesus passed by the site of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, and the site is also mentioned by numerous historical accounts, including 12th-century traveler Benjamin of Tudela, said Almakyas.
The site is located to the east of the old city of Nablus, which was in line with cemetery design in ancient Jewish cities. Because the prevailing winds come from the west, cemeteries were usually located east of the city to keep the smell away, added Almakyas, who has joined the organized visits to Joseph’s Tomb at least 20 times.
Joseph’s Tomb is also holy to Muslims, though the Quran does not mention the exact location of the tomb. Some Muslims believe Joseph’s Tomb is the final resting place of a sheikh named Joseph, but not necessarily the biblical Joseph, said Paz.
The tomb is the second-holiest site to the Samaritans, after Mount Gerizim. Christians also consider it holy, though few Christian pilgrims visit the site.
Even though the tomb is considered one of the five holiest spots in Judaism, after the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, and Rachel’s Tomb, its isolated geographic location has meant few Jews pray there. When visits are coordinated by the army, which is every three or four weeks, they generally take place in the middle of the night.
“It is in the middle of Palestinian territory, which makes it complicated and dangerous to go there,” said Berkovits, the expert on Israel’s holy places. “In places like Rachel’s Tomb or the Tomb of the Patriarchs, there’s always an Israeli presence. [Joseph’s Tomb] has no Jews inside or outside, no army presence, and it’s under the responsibility of the Palestinian Authority. You can’t just up and decide to go to Joseph’s Tomb tomorrow; it’s really complicated to get there, which is why Jews don’t really go.”
But Samaria council head Dagan insists that the hundreds of worshipers who attend the organized tours approximately once a month prove that many people feel a connection with the site. “There are tens of thousands that come, religious and secular, people from abroad, ministers, the public wants to come and they vote with their feet,” Dagan told The Times of Israel. But Dagan said that worshipers must follow “existing orderly entrance arrangements” in order to safeguard lives.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and other holy sites, also condemned the decision by the Jewish Israelis to visit Joseph’s Tomb without prior coordination with security forces. “These people are endangering their own lives and endangering us all if heaven forbid they were kidnapped by evildoers,” he said in a statement.
Political leaders roundly condemned the destruction of the tomb on Friday. “We haven’t seen this type of vandalism since 2000,” said Dagan. “It makes you cry, the amount of damage there. They just burned everything.”
In the wake of the destruction, members of an extreme right-wing yeshiva that used to be located at Joseph’s Tomb are demanding that the army allow them to return to operate a yeshiva at the contested holy site. The Od Yosef Hai yeshiva leaders referred to Friday’s vandalism as “pogroms” and demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the army “immediately and completely cancel the terror monstrosity known as the ‘Oslo Agreements,’ and bring back Jewish control over Nablus and the rest of Israel,” according to the Kipa website (Hebrew link).
The IDF spokesperson’s unit refused to answer questions about future plans for the site, including whether visits would be frozen due to the tense political climate.
But Paz, the former Civil Administration director, said that violence would inevitably continue.
“When the army takes responsibility for bringing Jews, there will continue to be attacks,” he said. Reiterating that the Palestinians are not holding up to their part of the bargain regarding maintenance or repairs of the site, he added: “I’m not saying these attacks are justified. But it’s in the heart of Palestinian territory and there’s no way to cooperate with them.”