Israeli pilgrims visit Nablus shrine despite end of PA security cooperation

Israeli pilgrims visit Nablus shrine despite end of PA security cooperation

No irregular incidents reported as 150 people take part in monthly prayer service at Joseph’s Tomb inside Palestinian-controlled area

Israeli soldiers secure Jewish pilgrims at Joseph's Tomb near the West Bank city of Nablus, July 29, 2019 (IDF)
Illustrative: Israeli soldiers secure Jewish pilgrims at Joseph's Tomb near the West Bank city of Nablus, July 29, 2019 (IDF)

Some 150 Israelis overnight Wednesday visited Joseph’s Tomb, a holy site located inside an area of the West Bank under full Palestinian control, despite the Palestinian Authority declaring last month that it was ending all security cooperation with Israel.

The pilgrims were escorted, as usual, by Israeli soldiers, the military said. The Israel Defense Forces said there were “no irregular incidents” during the visit and prayer service, the first held there since February.

There were, however, light clashes nearby between Palestinian rioters, who threw rocks, and IDF troops, who responded with less lethal riot dispersal weapons.

Palestinian security forces who protect the compound, just outside Nablus, left the site before the Israeli group arrived and then returned ten minutes after they had gone, the Ynet website reported. They arrived just in time to prevent a group of Palestinians from setting fire to the building, the report said.

Near monthly visits to the tomb by Israelis are permitted by the IDF and are carried out under heavy armed guard.

The visit was the first since the end of Israel’s strict coronavirus restrictions and the first since Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced 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 of 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 the planned unilateral annexation of parts of the West Bank by Israel, 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.

The move would be coordinated with the United States, in accordance with a Middle East plan US President Donald Trump unveiled in January, which endorsed extending Israeli sovereignty over these parts of the West Bank.

However, there are signs a short delay might be in the offing.

US approval depends on the completion of a mapping process being carried out by a joint Israeli-US team, and a source has told The Times of Israel that it is “highly unlikely” that the process will be done by July 1. The source said it could be delayed by weeks or even months.

In addition, European countries, as well as Arab nations with which Israel does not have formal ties, have also warned Israel against the consequences of annexation.

The Palestinians have rejected the entire Trump peace proposal.

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)

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. Jewish pilgrims are usually only allowed to visit the tomb once a month under heavy armed guard. During these visits, Palestinians routinely throw rocks at the troops, and sometimes attack them with Molotov cocktails and gunfire.

Visits to the site, which in the past have drawn over 1,000 pilgrims, were halted after February due to lockdown measures banning public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. As infection rates dwindled, many restrictions have lifted.

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, believed to contain the remains of the biblical patriarch Joseph, Hebrew media reported at the time.

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

Earlier this week, 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.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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