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Why Israelis flock to small tomb in Nablus at night

Despite the fact that Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus has been the site of recurring clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews keep coming to the site for nocturnal prayers.

If a stranger unfamiliar with the situation had shown up at Joseph’s Tomb on the night of Oct. 9, he would have a tough time understanding what was happening all around him. Vast military forces had taken up position across the southeastern outskirts of Nablus, one of the largest Palestinian cities in Samaria, in addition to all other positions in the area such as major intersections and along the access roads.

These troops had gathered around a small stone complex with a tiny prayer hall topped with a white-painted dome and surrounded by a portico covered with Jerusalem stone. Military rotorcraft with cameras and other secretive observation and intelligence devices hovered overhead, while snipers and lookouts were stationed throughout all the surrounding high ground. Huge forces — consisting of the military, police and border patrol — spread out along all the roads leading to the complex, which was still completely empty. The Shin Bet and other security services’ counterterrorism units, including the elite Mista’arvim (Infiltration) counterterrorism units, were also involved in this exhaustive Israeli intelligence effort to secure the location before the zero hour arrived.

This wasn’t some Israeli invasion of a major Palestinian city or even a large-scale operation to track down and arrest major terrorist suspects. The site in question was where — according to Jewish tradition — the bones of the biblical Joseph were buried after the ancient Israelites brought them from Egypt. It is one of the most sacred sites for Orthodox Jews, who are drawn to it by devout faith and feel an almost magnetic need to make pilgrimage to it, pray in the sanctuary and prostrate themselves before the tiny tomb. They do this while completely ignoring the dangers lurking around them.

Dozens of buses carrying hundreds of Jewish worshippers were scheduled to arrive at the site on the night of Oct. 9. The event began at 11 p.m. and continued until dawn. It was not just a one-off, as it is a ritual that repeats itself at least once a month.

Built on two adjacent green hills (Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, both sacred to the Samaritan community), Nablus is home to some 153,000 Palestinians and surrounded by another 60 Palestinian villages. It is considered one of the towns most hostile to Israel in the West Bank.

For the past 20 years, Joseph’s Tomb has been a focus of friction, hostility and many bloody clashes between the two sides. Yet none of that has kept Jewish worshippers away. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are caught in the middle, between hundreds of thousands of Arabs (389,000 Palestinians live in the Nablus district) and hundreds of Jews. It does what it can to satisfy everyone, but that doesn’t always seem to work.

Until recently, Col. Gilad Amit, a young Israeli officer, was the IDF’s attache to the US Marine Corps. After spending two years living in a Marine base in Virginia, he returned to Israel and landed right in the middle of Samaria as commander of the IDF’s Samaria Brigade, a part of the Judea and Samaria Division. It would be hard to imagine a sharper contrast. Amit’s current role is to maintain quiet across Judea and Samaria. He works with the Palestinian security forces to achieve this. Once a month, however, he clears his schedule to focus on the pilgrimage to Joseph’s Tomb. While many Israelis consider the event eerie and bizarre, others (mainly Orthodox Jews) consider it a sanctification of God’s name and an act that expands people’s souls with deep faith.

The faithful arrive from across the country in shielded buses. Crammed inside, clutching tiny prayer books, are married yeshiva students and elderly ultra-Orthodox Jews, but also young adolescents, both males and females. They disembark the buses and run as if they were possessed to the modest stone building, where they crowd together in the tiny sanctuary for prayers. They are surrounded by a thick cordon of soldiers and security forces, some visible and others less so. All around them are the familiar minarets of the neighboring mosques, illuminated with green lights, like the eyes of enemies seeking malice against the worshippers.

The event on Oct. 9 went by relatively peacefully. A few dozen Palestinian youngsters from the nearby Balata refugee camp, which is just 300 meters (roughly 1,000 feet) away, rioted, burning tires and throwing stones at a small group of IDF soldiers that faced them. The soldiers prevented them from leaving the camp and entering the tomb’s compound. An unusual incident took place inside Nablus, when a car stopped in front of a Palestinian official building. Its occupants fired at the building before driving off. Apparently, this was related to an internal Palestinian quarrel. Otherwise, Nablus was calm and asleep, ignoring the strange things taking place on the outskirts.

A senior IDF officer said that the current situation in Nablus is fair. There has been a decline in violence, cooperation with the Palestinian security forces is good, both parties recognize the limitations of this cooperation, and all in all the fabric of day-to-day life has been maintained. In the 11 years since the second intifada (2000–2005), Nablus has changed dramatically. The city suffered severe damage from the fighting during Operation Defensive Shield, and it was left at least partially in ruins. Today, it is a clean, modern city, with increasing signs of Westernization. There are large shopping malls, brand-name chains, fairly modern cars, restaurants and a gorgeous boardwalk that overlooks the valley that splits the city in two right in its center.

The local economy is considered the strongest of all the Palestinian territories. Numerous factories produce goods that are grabbed off the shelves in Israel, local merchants cross over to Israel to conduct their business and Israeli Arabs are allowed into Nablus on weekends to shop and increase the town’s consumer base. The wave of violence that broke out in the territories in October 2015 almost skipped over this region entirely. Most of the Palestinian violence originated in East Jerusalem or Hebron. Nablus went on with its life in relative quiet.

As one senior defense source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, most people on both sides want to maintain this kind of coexistence, increase cooperation and live in peace. The people, he said, all realize that maintaining peace and quiet will be beneficial to everyone. The problem, he added, is that there are aggressive minorities on both sides who keep the level of tension high. They are trying to cause the relationship between the two parties to deteriorate and to increase the level of violence.

In Nablus, the source of these problems can be found in the refugee camps, exacerbated by the influence that Hamas has in the city. On the Israeli side, the problem lies with groups representing the far right and some (but not many) of the settlers. Standing between them are the IDF and the Palestinian security forces, who, the source admits, have had some though times lately. They lost some control, mainly in the refugee camps, but over the last few months, government rule has been restored and the situation has stabilized. We should pray that it remains this way, because in the end, we are all just sitting on a powder keg, waiting for the spark that will set it off.

Editor's note: This article has been updated since its initial publication.

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