Prayer, politics collide on midnight pilgrimage

By Matti Friedman

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, May 31 2011 8:53 a.m. MDT

NABLUS, West Bank — A modest stone building holy to Jews in the midst of this Arab city is becoming an increasingly volatile friction point, drawing growing numbers of pilgrims on nighttime prayer visits, unnerving Palestinian residents and putting Israel's military into conflict with some of the worshippers it is meant to protect.

The monthly trips by religious Jews to this largely hostile city, coordinated with Palestinian security forces, emphasize the complexity of the Holy Land's religious landscape and the sometimes deadly intersection of the sacred and the political.

Just after midnight Monday, convoys of buses carrying 1,600 Jewish worshippers began driving into Nablus in waves for prayers at Joseph's Tomb. Escorted by olive-drab army jeeps and dozens of ground troops, it was the biggest group to reach the site since the military began regularly allowing visits four years ago.

The lead bus was crammed to perhaps twice its capacity with ultra-Orthodox Jews in long black coats, settler teens in jeans and T-shirts, and girls in long skirts. There was an air of anticipation and, as time wore on, a sour smell of perspiration.

When the buses finally moved into Nablus, Israeli soldiers in battle gear were visible securing the route, standing by closed shops and clumped beside a Bank of Palestine ATM.

Organizers, members of the hard core of Israel's settlement movement, see the visits to the traditional gravesite of the biblical Joseph as a mix of religious duty, assertion of ownership and show of force. For many observant Jews, Nablus is part of the biblical land promised to the Jews by God.

"These are our roots," said Gilad Levanon, a 22-year-old Jewish seminary student, who was among the worshippers this week. "We have a strong belief that this is our role in this world — to continue the path of our fathers, despite momentary interference."

Palestinians view them as a provocation and an attempt by Israeli extremists to create a political foothold inside their city, which is one of the main autonomous zones established by the interim peace accords of the 1990s. The Palestinians hope to make the entire West Bank, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, part of a future independent state.

"If a believer wants to worship God, he can do that from any place," said Zuheir Dubei, 58, a mosque preacher in Nablus, "not only from a place like Joseph's Tomb where blood can be shed."

There are always more would-be worshippers than places on the buses, and people often spend months on a waiting list, said David Haivry, a settler spokesman and convoy organizer.

Some worshippers, including about 200 young men on Monday, have made a point of sneaking into Nablus without permission, forcing the army to play a game of nocturnal cat-and-mouse with them in the fields around the city. Last month, a 25-year-old Israeli man traveled to the tomb without permission and was killed by a Palestinian policeman.

In coordination with the military, Palestinian security forces are pulled off the streets when the worshippers go in to avoid clashes with the Israelis, and the streets were empty when the first buses arrived. The only explicit sign that the city of 125,000 was inhabited came in the form of a lone rock that slammed into the side of the lead bus as it passed a row of homes.

The first to leap out when the bus pulled up outside the domed tomb was a young man with red sidelocks who wore the long black gabardine of the Bratslav Hasidic sect. He sprinted for the tomb, joined by streams of worshippers who poured out of the buses, ran through the gate and pressed ecstatically into the small room that houses the grave marker to chant psalms. Hebrew graffiti on one wall read, "Joseph lives."

Some visitors openly lamented the fact that they could not freely access the tomb whenever they pleased. "We're still coming at night, like dogs," one bearded man said.

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