Clashes reported as 2,500 Israelis pray at Nablus holy site ahead of annexation

Settler leader tells worshipers at Joseph’s Tomb, in area of West Bank under PA control, that ‘history will not forgive those who abandon the holy places at this time’

Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council, visits Joseph's Tomb, June 23, 2020 (Roi Hadi)
Yossi Dagan, head of the Samaria Regional Council, visits Joseph's Tomb, June 23, 2020 (Roi Hadi)

A settler group said Tuesday morning that some 2,500 Israelis visited Joseph’s Tomb, a holy site located inside an area of the West Bank under full Palestinian control, the night before.

According to Palestinian reports, an unspecified number of Palestinians were injured in clashes with Israel Defense Forces troops at the time of the visit.

There was no statement from the military on the visit or reported violence, which came a week ahead of the date on which Israel says it plans to begin unilaterally annexing parts of the West Bank.

Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan said in a statement that worshipers prayed for a full and successful annexation of the West Bank by Israel.

“We are here to send a clear message: People of Israel, the State of Israel will not give up the holy places,” he said. “History will not forgive those who abandon the holy places at this time. We will not accept symbolic sovereignty.”

Last month, Dagan started a campaign against the establishment of a Palestinian state and the creation of isolated settlement “enclaves” in the West Bank as part of US President Donald Trump’s plan.

Thousands of religious Jews visit the Joseph’s Tomb holy site in the West Bank city of Nablus on September 17, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Near-monthly visits by Israelis to Joseph’s Tomb are permitted by the Israel Defense Forces and are carried out under heavy armed guard.

Joseph’s Tomb is located inside Area A of the West Bank, which is officially under complete Palestinian Authority control, though the Israeli military conducts activities there. The IDF bars Israeli citizens from entering Area A without prior authorization.

The site is venerated by Jews, Christians and Muslims, and has often been a flashpoint for sectarian violence. During these visits by Jewish pilgrims, Palestinians routinely throw rocks at the troops, and sometimes attack them with Molotov cocktails and gunfire.

Screenshot from the fire started by Palestinian rioters at Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, in the West Bank, on October 16, 2015.

In 2015 a large group of Palestinians set fire to the compound containing Joseph’s Tomb. Palestinian Authority security forces dispersed the hundred-strong crowd and managed to douse the fire at the tomb, which tradition says contains the remains of the biblical patriarch Joseph.

There have been other incidents of arson and vandalism at the site, including major damage by Palestinian rioters in 2000.

Last month, an Israeli court convicted a former Palestinian police officer for opening fire in 2011 on a group of Israelis who had visited the site without coordination. One man was killed.

The latest overnight visit came despite the announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas last month that he was ending security cooperation with Israel, though questions have arisen over the extent to which coordination has actually been frozen.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas heads a leadership meeting at his headquarters, in the West Bank city Ramallah, May 19, 2020. (Alaa Badarneh/Pool via AP)

On May 21, Abbas declared that the PA was “absolved” of all agreements and understandings with Israel and the US. Abbas said his statement was in response to repeated Israeli violations of those agreements, including its planned unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank, and that his security forces were cutting ties with the Israeli military.

The claim has since proven to be overstated, as some degree of coordination has continued despite the dramatic announcement, though to a lesser extent than normal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted he will go ahead with plans to extend Israeli sovereignty to settlements and the Jordan Valley — some 30 percent of the West Bank — from July 1.

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