(AFP) – Apr 14, 2008
NABLUS, West Bank (AFP) — Headlights pierce the misty night as the armoured bus packed with hardline Jews winds down the road from a hilltop settlement into the heart of the Palestinian town of Nablus.
Their destination is the burial place of the biblical patriarch Joseph, a pilgrimage site that has become a grim symbol of the region's intractable conflict.
Nearly 100 men wearing black hats or skullcaps and clutching prayer books huddle in the bus, some reading prayers by the light of mobile phones.
"This is a path of devotion for God. I have gone this way dozens of times and will continue doing it," says Benjamin Makhleb, a 23-year-old member of the Hassidic Breslav movement who had come from Jerusalem.
The tense silence that grips this cloak-and-dagger mission gives way to raptured singing and praying as the two buses pass through the checkpoint at the entrance to Nablus, under heavy military escort.
It is just past 2 am.
"This is the cradle of our existence as a Jewish people. Joseph's Tomb is part of every Jew and it is shameful to see us having to sneak in here like thieves in the night," says 23-year-old Nathan Azur.
"It saddens and angers me to see this," says the bearded student from a town near Tel Aviv.
Everyone makes the journey for religious reasons, but for many extreme right-wing Israelis it is also an affirmation of what they see as the Jews' right to control and govern their sacred sites in the Holy Land.
They reject the Israeli government's peace talks with the Palestinians, whose goal is to create an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip -- which would mean evacuating dozens of Jewish settlements and removing Israeli army presence from most of the occupied land .
Escorted by two armored jeeps at each end, the small convoy heads slowly through the deserted, derelict streets of this town of 150,000.
The Palestinian Authority deployed 600 policemen in Nablus after Middle East peace talks resumed in November, but they are not allowed to operate after midnight when only the Israeli army patrols the city.
Palestinian security officials told AFP they are not involved in coordinating the visits to the tomb of Joseph, the 11th son of Jacob. And one local Palestinian security official warned that these the visits could spark new trouble.
"This place has already seen a lot of violence and death, and allowing the settlers to enter Nablus and visit this site could cause more violence," said the official, who requested to remain unnamed.
A small synagogue built on the site following Israel's occupation of the West Bank in 1967 was ransacked and destroyed by Palestinians shortly after the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000. Several Israeli soldiers and Palestinian were killed in fighting at this site.
In another incident, hundreds of Jewish settlers and Breslav Hassidim defied an Israeli ban on entering Palestinian cities in order to visit the tomb, at great personal risk under cover of darkness.
After the army had to rescue several of them, the military agreed to organise regular, guarded visits with help from local Jewish settler groups.
These days the visits are "done in full coordination with the army, after appropriate preparations and in view of the conditions that allow the prayers to be carried out under the army's surveillance," the army said in a statement.
Nahman Weiss, 19, however, says he has visited this tomb and many other holy sites across the West Bank hundreds of times in recent years, often travelling with friends and without informing the army.
The risk involved is a test of his devotion to God, he says.
"Going through this is hard and sometimes dangerous, but this is the only happiness. We trust God," he says. Like other men on the bus, Weiss sports the earlocks, white skullcap and black overcoat of his Hassidic sect.
As fervent believers file silently out of the bus in front of the abandoned tomb, dozens of heavily armed soldiers fan out across the area.
Two neon lamps illuminate the limestone structure as the stench of urine and rubbish mingles with the cold night air. The stairs leading to the small domed shrine are covered with litter and dirt.
Women in headscarves get off a second bus and head to the tomb as the men enter a side room where they immediately break into rapturous prayers.
In the centre of the main chamber a ring of stones encircles the presumed grave where an Ottoman-era tombstone was destroyed in 2003.
A huge hole in the demolished dome opens out to the starry sky, and the walls are still black from the blaze that badly damaged the structure.
Young women prostrate themselves upon the grave, whispering prayers for good luck, health and strength. Others read quietly from prayer books.
After a few minutes the men enter and take the women's place in the main room. Some sink into deep meditation, swaying back and forth. Others break into loud singing in praise of God and Joseph.
Some rub their faces with dirt from the ground and the walls of the site.
"This is a source of strength and good fortune," says Ohad Ben-Ela, a 20-year-old settler from Yitzhar, his face black with soot and earth.
A megaphone calls everyone back to the buses, sparking a burst of loud singing inside the tomb as the pilgrims make the most out of the 30-minute visit. Back on the bus, some excitedly exchange impressions, others are exhausted by the intense late-night experience.
Someone uses the vehicle's PA system to urge everyone to return to the tomb, with or without the army, in order to assert their claim over the site.
"We must continue pressing the army to conquer this place from our enemies," the pilgrim said. "We must not cave in to dictates by an army that operates as a UN force between Jews and Arabs."
Back in the settlement of Yitzhar, overlooking Nablus, two more buses are ready to depart as the others return. A total of seven busloads of pilgrims will visit Joseph's Tomb before dawn.
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