Joseph's Tomb fight has just begun

By Nathan Jeffay, May 12, 2011

It is a proposal that, if adopted, is likely to cause significant Israeli-Palestinian friction. On Sunday, Israeli Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom advocated making the purported tomb of the Biblical Joseph, which falls under Palestinian Authority jurisdiction in Nablus, a designated Israeli "heritage site".

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu staked his claim on Jewish sites in the West Bank 18 months ago, giving the "heritage site" designation to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem - and attracting international criticism in doing so. So why now the suggestion regarding Joseph's Tomb?

The catalyst has been the death of 24-year-old Israeli Ben-Yosef Livnat at the site last month. He was shot by Palestinian police after entering PA jurisdiction without authorisation or the requisite co-ordination with the Israeli army. Though likely to be deemed a procedural error by both ongoing PA and Israeli army investigations, the incident sparked fury on the Israeli right, including in Mr Shalom's Likud party.

But Joseph's Tomb started brewing as an issue long before the shooting. In recent months, clandestine visits to the tomb have become increasingly common. While the army organises a secured monthly visit for around 800 people, some 400 are believed, like the late Livnat, to make unauthorised visits.

A combination of religious and political trends has led to this

There is a craze among young Orthodox to visit religious sites that are off the beaten track

In the Orthodox community there is a craze among youngsters for visiting sites of religious significance that are off the beaten track and felt to provide adventure and spirituality. Most popular are countryside springs, in which young men bathe using them as ritual baths, and graves of religious figures. One of the driving forces behind this trend is Breslev Chasidim, who dominate the clandestine pilgrimages to Joseph's Tomb.

Secondly, frustrated during the 10-month settlement freeze which ended in September, some settlers turned their attention from the battle to build - where they were having no success - to the battle for access.

Settlers ran numerous trips and hikes intended to assert ownership rights over the West Bank, both within settlement boundaries and outside. Many were legal but others, like the Joseph's Tomb visits, were not - intentionally so to make the point that Israelis should have constant access to the entire West Bank.

Even if nothing becomes of Mr Shalom's proposal to designate the tomb an Israeli "heritage site," it is almost certain that settlers will do everything they can to propel Joseph's Tomb firmly onto the national agenda. Last week, 55 people made a clandestine visite to the tomb and barricaded themselves in until police forcibly removed them. For them and their supporters, this is just the start of a long fight.

Last updated: 1:00pm, May 12 2011