Palestinians attack visitors to holy site

7 Jewish worshipers hurt after defying Israeli ban on travel to Joseph tomb

December 13, 2003|By Ken Ellingwood | Ken Ellingwood,LOS ANGELES TIMES

JERUSALEM - Seven Jewish worshipers were wounded early yesterday when they came under Palestinian gunfire in the West Bank after praying at a holy site, despite Israeli government orders to stay out.

The pre-dawn ambush in the city of Nablus came after the group - members of a Hasidic sect called Bratslav - visited a site that is said to be the burial spot of the biblical Joseph.

The group considers Joseph's Tomb to be sacred and has made repeated visits to the site in defiance of an Israeli military ban on travel by Israeli civilians into areas under Palestinian authority. The Israeli military once controlled the site but withdrew in 2000 amid gunbattles during the early stages of the Palestinian uprising. After that, Palestinians set fire to the site, which at the time included several buildings.

Claims of responsibility for the ambush came from two armed groups: Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is loosely tied to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah party, and Islamic Jihad, which has carried out numerous suicide attacks inside Israel.

Israeli authorities expressed irritation yesterday with the Bratslav group, which acknowledges routinely defying the ban on visits to Joseph's Tomb in the heart of Nablus, the largest city in the West Bank. More than once, the worshipers have required the assistance of Israeli forces to escape harm.

After yesterday's shooting, Israel dispatched a military helicopter to evacuate the wounded and get them to two hospitals in the Tel Aviv area. One of the victims - an 18-year-old man - was listed in critical condition late yesterday. Most of the others suffered moderate or light wounds.

Shahar Ayalon, Israel's police commander for the West Bank, castigated the worshipers for repeatedly violating the travel ban and placing themselves - and potential rescuers - in harm's way. He said the Israel Defense Forces were stretched thin and had little time for such rescues.

The Bratslav members have gained a reputation for defiance when it comes to Joseph's Tomb. Although the site is not widely considered sacred among Jews, it was home to a Jewish seminary founded in the 1980s and long associated with religious hard-liners. Its leaders have been critical of the Israeli government for not retaking the site and opening it to worshipers.

Despite the general ban, the Bratslav group has sneaked past military checkpoints in the dead of night to pray in a Palestinian stronghold where their presence is viewed as provocative. At times in the past, they have been arrested by the military for defying the ban.

Yesterday, 16 worshipers were riding home after prayers when their van came under fire near the tomb, apparently from one or more automatic weapons, according to Israeli police. After the evacuation, eight members of the group who were not injured were ordered held by a magistrate in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva on suspicion of violating the travel ban.

In October, about 500 people were allowed by Israeli authorities to pray at the tomb and to honor Joseph, the favored son of the patriarch Jacob, during the weeklong Sukkot holiday. Organized groups of five or more people reportedly have been making surreptitious visits to the site twice a week for the past few months without injuries.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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