Conflict around a holy site


Dispute: As Israel builds a fence around Jerusalem, many Palestinians are angry that it will jut out to include Rachel's Tomb.

October 21, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BETHLEHEM, West Bank - It was still dark when the armored bus pulled into the parking bay at Rachel's Tomb, a Jewish shrine to the Biblical matriarch that is encased in protective concrete pillars and topped with a guard tower.

An armed Israeli soldier got off first, followed by a group of faithful pilgrims - including a 13-year-old boy preparing for his bar mitzvah and a New Yorker who survived a Nazi concentration camp.

"Hurry, hurry," one man urged, worried about the few exposed steps between the bus and the door.

Clutching psalm books and prayer shawls, the faithful quickly filed into a cavernous, modern hallway that abruptly gave way to weathered stone arches and the domed burial site of the wife of Jacob, one of the three patriarchs.

This group numbering about 30 has come here every Friday for the past eight years, a weekly sojourn of faith and reaffirmation, keeping a Jewish hold on this religious site. Like so much here, it is contested, a holy place for Muslims, too, and a flash-point for violent clashes just south of Jerusalem. Rachel was the wife of Jacob, a descendant of Abraham who is revered by Muslims as the grandfather of all prophets and by Jews as a father of Judaism.

The tomb is 500 yards into the West Bank, but in an area that has remained under Israeli security control since the Palestinians gained autonomy over Bethlehem seven years ago. But now Israel is starting to build a fence to put it firmly within Jerusalem's municipal boundaries.

"If you are there, then it's yours," said the prayer group's organizer, Abraham Mittleman, adhering to a Middle East axiom that anything vacant is up for grabs. "If you are not there, then you can only argue about it."

The security fence is supposed to wrap around Jerusalem and protect its residents from suicide bombers. But the army announced last month that the fence would veer off its stated path to include Rachel's Tomb. They insist they only want to ensure the safety of Jewish worshipers, and have no plans to expand the city under the guise of protecting it.

But to Palestinians, the plan is a form of de facto annexation and a further blurring of the 1967 line - a border still being debated - that divides the West Bank from Israel. It is a move that could further inflame tensions in a region already ripped apart by religion and land.

"The Israelis are changing the entrance to the city of Bethlehem," said Adnan Husseini, director of the Waqf, the Islamic trust that oversees Muslim holy sites. "This is the city of Jesus, and it should not be blocked or fenced in."

Until the 1800s, Rachel's Tomb was a simple domed building. In 1841, British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore renovated the structure and enclosed the dome over the grave. It is surrounded on three sides by a Muslim cemetery.

Jordanians who ruled the West Bank after Israel's independence in 1948 forbade Jews to worship there. That changed when Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Six Day War, giving Israel control over many Jewish holy sites previously off-limits, including the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City.

In 1995, when Bethlehem was put under Palestinian Authority rule as a result of interim peace accords, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to hand over Rachel's Tomb to the Palestinians. But a storm of protest from religious Jews forced him to back down, and the area remained under Israeli control.

Still, the area is considered part of Bethlehem and the West Bank. The Israeli checkpoint between Bethlehem and Jerusalem is 500 yards to the north of the tomb. At the outbreak of violence two years ago, the army shut down the road near the tomb, diverted traffic around the burial site and covered it with military fortifications.

Muslims consider the tomb a mosque, but Israel does not allow them to pray there. Jews who want to pray at the tomb show up at the army checkpoint and are escorted in, either in an armored bus or with a soldier.

Palestinian militants have often shot at soldiers guarding the tomb, and rock-throwing youngsters have confronted troops there in repeated clashes that left many of them dead or wounded. Israeli soldiers have died there as well. Approaching the tomb without a military escort can invite warning shots.

Now, as part of the border plan called "enveloping Jerusalem," the army has said it will move the checkpoint next to the tomb, giving Jewish worshipers unfettered access.

But it could make inaccessible a string of Palestinian homes and shops that now line the street between the tomb and the fortified checkpoint.

Some Jewish groups are pressing the Israeli government to take over the empty stores and houses on the grounds that they have been abandoned. The owners, who in peaceful times relied on Jewish pilgrims to buy food and trinkets, left because of the violence and the army's frequent clampdowns by declaring the road a "closed military zone."

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