The Palestinian Authority and the Jewish Holy Sites in the West Bank:
Rachel’s Tomb as a Test Case

, December 2, 2007

No. 559    December 2007

  • Rachel’s Tomb lies on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem, about 460 meters (about 500 yards) south of the Jerusalem municipal border, and for more than 1,700 years has been identified as the tomb of the matriarch Rachel. “The building with the dome and olive tree” became a Jewish symbol, appearing in thousands of drawings, photographs, and works of art and depicted on the covers of Jewish holy books. However, today the little domed structure has been encased in a sleeve of reinforced concrete with firing holes and defensive trenches, and covered with camouflage netting.
  • According to the armistice agreement signed on April 3, 1949, Jordan was to allow Israel “free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives.” In practice, Jordan did not allow Jews free access to their holy places, and for 19 years, until 1967, Jews could not go to the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem (Nablus), or other sites sacred to Jews which remained in Jordanian hands.
  • The Gaza-Jericho Agreement signed in May 1994 stated: “The Palestinian Authority shall ensure free access to all holy sites in the Gaza Strip and the Jericho Area.” The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, signed on the White House lawn on September 28, 1995, dealt with the status of 23 places holy to Jews. The Palestinians promised to assure freedom of access to those places. However, the Palestinians either made access extremely difficult or prevented it entirely.
  • In October 2000, Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus was attacked, set ablaze and desecrated. Druze Border Police Corporal Yusef Madhat bled to death on October 4 because Palestinians refused to allow his evacuation. The “Shalom al Israel” synagogue in Jericho was also attacked. Holy books and relics were burned, and the synagogue’s ancient mosaic was damaged.
  • In 2000, after hundreds of years of recognizing the site as Rachel’s Tomb, Muslims began calling it the “Bilal ibn Rabah mosque” – a name that has since entered the national Palestinian discourse. The Palestinian claim ignored the fact that Ottoman firmans (decrees) gave Jews in the Land of Israel the right of access to the site at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Israel’s experience since the Oslo agreements has shown that the responsibility for Jewish holy sites or the roads leading to them should remain in Israeli hands.

The Fortification of Rachel’s Tomb

In September 1997 the Israeli media departed from its routine chronicling of security and society, and for a few days the radio, television and press joined forces in harsh criticism of what looked like an architectural catastrophe: the scene at the Tomb of Rachel, the mother of the Jewish people. Writers, poets, intellectuals, and newspapermen bewailed the loss of a picturesque tableau: the small stone structure with its dome, appended room and ancient olive tree nearby. Enraged, they railed against the new vista: a giant concrete blockhouse surrounded by gun positions and guard towers which obscured the image of the ancient, traditional structure engraved on Israel’s collective memory.1

The architectural logic behind the fortifications was based upon security considerations: hundreds of incidents in which Palestinians from Bethlehem and the nearby refugee camps threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, and even shot at Jewish worshippers and Israeli soldiers.

A 1,700-Year-Old Tradition

Rachel’s Tomb lies on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem, about 460 meters (about 500 yards) south of the Jerusalem municipal border, and for more than 1,700 years has been identified as the tomb of the matriarch Rachel. A vast amount of literature written by pilgrims – Jewish, Christian and Muslim – documents the site as Rachel’s burial place.2

Jews have visited the site for generations, coming to pray, request and plead. The place became a kind of miniature Wailing Wall where suppliant Jews came to pour out their hearts and recount their misfortunes at the bosom of the beloved mother, where they could find consolation and cure.

According to Jewish tradition, Rachel’s tears have special powers,3 which is why those who visit her grave ask her to cry and intercede with the Divinity. According to Genesis 36:16-19, Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin and was “buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem,” and became, in Jewish tradition and history, biblical interpretation and essence, the mother whose tears have a special function.4 Writers, poets and biblical exegetics identified her tears with almost every catastrophe or trouble which plagued the Jewish people.

Visitors to Rachel’s Tomb connected her and her tears to the tomb itself. “The building with the dome and olive tree” became a Jewish symbol.5 The room added to the original structure by Sir Moses Montefiore in 1841 only served to reinforce the connection. The tomb has since appeared in thousands of drawings, photographs, stamps, and works of art and has been depicted on the covers of Jewish holy books. However, whoever visits the tomb today will find it hard to recognize it as the place engraved on Jewish hearts and memories. The little domed structure, the memory, and tomb of the matriarch Rachel has been encased in a sleeve of reinforced concrete with firing holes and defensive trenches, and covered with camouflage netting.

In accordance with an Israeli government decision of September 11, 2002, Rachel’s Tomb, which millions of Jews have visited since the Six-Day War, was enclosed by the security fence built by Israel. That made it look even worse. Not only was the tomb within the fortification, but the short road to it – a few hundred yards from Jerusalem – was closed off inside concrete walls and firing positions.

The Fate of the Jewish Holy Places

Since its establishment, the State of Israel has been badly disappointed by agreements transferring responsibility for Jewish holy places to neighboring Arab or Palestinian rule. On April 3, 1949, Israel signed an armistice with Jordan. According to Paragraph 8, Article 2 of the agreement, Jordan was to allow Israel “free access to the Holy Places and cultural institutions and use of the cemetery on the Mount of Olives.” In practice, not only could Jews not visit the graves of their loved ones on the Mount of Olives, but the site was desecrated. Headstones of Jewish graves were shattered and some were used as paving stones or in construction.6 Jordan did not allow Jews free access to their holy places, and for 19 years, until 1967, Jews could not go to the Western Wall, Rachel’s Tomb, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem (Nablus), or other sites sacred to Jews which remained in Jordanian hands.7

In May 1994, Israel signed the Gaza-Jericho Agreement in Cairo. According to Article 15 of Annex II, “the Palestinian Authority shall ensure free access to all holy sites in the Gaza Strip and the Jericho Area,” mentioning the Naaran synagogue, the Jewish cemetery in Tel Sammarat, the “Shalom al Israel” synagogue in Jericho, and the synagogue in Gaza City.8

On September 28, 1995, the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement was signed on the White House lawn, making the Palestinians responsible for civilian and security matters in additional areas of the West Bank. In accordance with the agreement, Israel withdrew from six Palestinian cities and part of Hebron; the IDF and the civil administration were withdrawn. In addition, Israel withdrew from 450 villages, towns, refugee camps, and other areas throughout the West Bank.

The holy sites in those regions, or adjacent regions (access to which passed through or close to Palestinian areas), were designated as “sites of religious significance” or “archaeological sites.” The agreement also dealt with the status of 23 places holy to Jews, including the tombs of biblical figures, the ruins of ancient synagogues, and ancient cemeteries. The Palestinians promised to assure freedom of access to those places.9 In reality, however, the Palestinians either made access extremely difficult or prevented it entirely.

In October 2000, Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus was attacked, set ablaze and desecrated. Druze Border Police Corporal Yusef Madhat bled to death on October 4 because Palestinians refused to allow his evacuation. It also became extremely complicated for Jews to reach other, less well-known places, such as the tomb of Avner ben Ner near Hebron,10 or similar sites, to say nothing of the synagogue in Gaza. Only at the “Shalom al Israel” synagogue in Jericho did the Palestinians generally adhere to the agreement, for a time, until it too was attacked with the outbreak of the second intifada in the fall of 2000. Holy books and relics were burned, and the synagogue’s ancient mosaic was damaged.11 Unfortunately, there has been a discernable deterioration in Palestinian treatment of Jewish holy sites in 2007, including the Tomb of Joshua bin Nun at Kefel Hares.12 In November 2007, the Palestinian Authority began to clean Joseph’s Tomb and discussions have been held regarding visits by Jews to the site.

Jewish Religious Leaders Plead for “Mother Rachel”

During 1995, when it became known that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had agreed to give the Palestinians full security and civilian control over Rachel’s Tomb, there was a strong reaction in the Jewish world. The Chief Rabbi of Israel, Israel Meir Lau, met with Prime Minister Rabin and said, “One does not part from one’s mother.” In a scene fraught with emotion, Menachem Porush, an aged ultra-Orthodox Knesset representative from the Yahadut Hatorah party, broke down in tears, weeping on the prime minister’s shoulder (in his office). He would not leave Rabin in peace until he changed the decision.13 Rabbis, political parties, Jewish organizations, and many important figures involved themselves in the issue until Rabin and Shimon Peres, at that time foreign minister, reached a new agreement with Yasser Arafat: Rachel’s Tomb and the road leading to it would remain under Israeli control.

On December 1, 1995, after Rabin’s assassination, Bethlehem, with the exception of the enclave of the tomb, passed under the full control of the Palestinian Authority. Rachel’s Tomb is now an outpost marking Jerusalem’s southern border. It has been massively fortified and Jews can only reach it in bulletproof vehicles under military supervision.

Why Rachel’s Tomb Became a Fortress

By February 1996 it was generally suspected that the Palestinians would carry out terrorist and suicide bombing attacks at Rachel’s Tomb as they had done elsewhere in Israel. The IDF feared the tomb would be an easy target, situated as it was on the main road linking Jerusalem and Hebron, which was well-travelled by both Jews and Arabs, and a decision was made to fortify the site.

In response, for the first time since 1967, the Palestinians claimed that “the Tomb of Rachel was on Islamic land.”14 At the end of September 1996, Palestinian riots broke out over the opening of an ancient tunnel in Jerusalem. After an attack on Joseph’s Tomb and its subsequent takeover by Palestinians, hundreds of residents of Bethlehem and the Aida refugee camp also attacked Rachel’s Tomb. They set the scaffolding which had been erected around it on fire and tried to break in. The rioters were led by the Palestinian Authority-appointed governor of Bethlehem, Muhammad Rashad al-Jabari. The IDF dispersed the mob with gunfire and stun grenades, and dozens were wounded. One of them was Kifah Barakat, a commander of Force 17, the presidential guard of Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.15

In the following years, the Palestinians occasionally disturbed the peace and public order, but a serious escalation occurred at the end of 2000 when the second intifada broke out. For forty-one days Jews did not visit the tomb because Palestinians attacked the site with gunfire.16

Bullets were fired at Rachel’s Tomb as soon as the riots began, from the Aida refugee camp between Beit Jala and Bethlehem, and from the roofs of buildings located to the west, south and east. Palestinian Authority security forces, who were responsible for keeping order, not only failed to prevent the violence, they actively participated in it. When the gunfire at soldiers and visitors increased, the Israeli army took to the neighboring roofs. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the battles, Shahar Vekret and Danny Darai. Darai was murdered by Atef Abayat, a Tanzim operative who headed the main terrorist network in Bethlehem at the time.17 In his book Permission Given, Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman revealed that not only was Abayat not arrested, as Israel demanded from the Palestinian Authority, but Yasser Arafat personally instructed that he be paid.

On December 4, 2000, Fatah operatives and members of the Palestinian security services also attacked Rachel’s Tomb. In May 2001, fifty Jews found themselves trapped inside by a firefight between the IDF and Palestinian Authority gunmen.18 In March 2002 the IDF returned to Bethlehem as part of Operation Defensive Shield and remained there for an extended period of time. In April 2002 the IDF laid siege to wanted terrorists who were hiding in the Church of the Nativity, not far from the tomb. In recent years there have been terrorist attacks at the site (although Israeli military control has decreased the level of violence), such as bombs thrown on April 10, 2000, and December 27, 2006, and scores of Palestinians who threw rocks as recently as February 10, 2007.

The Israel Supreme Court, which has often acceded to Palestinian appeals to change the path of the security fence, recognized the obvious security needs for protecting the holy site and on February 3, 2005, rejected a Palestinian appeal to change its path in the region of the tomb. The court decreed that the balance between freedom of worship and the local residents’ freedom of movement was to be preserved.19

The Palestinians Invent a Religious Claim

In 2000, after hundreds of years of recognizing the site as Rachel’s Tomb, Muslims began calling it the “Bilal ibn Rabah mosque.”20 Members of the Wakf used the name first in 1996, but it has since entered the national Palestinian discourse. Bilal ibn Rabah was an Ethiopian known in Islamic history as a slave who served in the house of the prophet Muhammad as the first muezzin (the individual who calls the faithful to prayer five times a day).21 When Muhammad died, ibn Rabah went to fight the Muslim wars in Syria, was killed in 642 CE, and buried in either Aleppo or Damascus.22 The Palestinian Authority claimed that according to Islamic tradition, it was Muslim conquerors who named the mosque erected at Rachel’s Tomb after Bilal ibn Rabah.

The Palestinian claim ignored the fact that Ottoman firmans (mandates or decrees) gave Jews in the Land of Israel the right of access to the site at the beginning of the nineteenth century.23 The Palestinian claim even ignored accepted Muslim tradition, which admires Rachel and recognizes the site as her burial place. According to tradition, the name “Rachel” comes from the word “wander,” because she died during one of her wanderings and was buried on the Bethlehem road.24 Her name is referred to in the Koran,25 and in other Muslim sources, Joseph is said to fall upon his mother Rachel’s grave and cry bitterly as the caravan of his captors passes by.26 For hundreds of years, Muslim holy men (walis) were buried in tombs whose form was the same as Rachel’s.

Then, out of the blue, the connection between Rachel, admired even by the Muslims, and her tomb is erased and the place becomes “the Bilal ibn Rabah mosque.” Well-known Orientalist Professor Yehoshua Porat has called the “tradition” the Muslims referred to as “false.” He said the Arabic name of the site was “the Dome of Rachel, a place where the Jews prayed.”27

Only a few years ago, official Palestinian publications contained not a single reference to such a mosque. The same was true for the Palestinian Lexicon issued by the Arab League and the PLO in 1984, and for Al-mawsu’ah al-filastiniyah, the Palestinian encyclopedia published in Italy after 1996. Palestine, the Holy Land, published by the Palestinian Council for Development and Rehabilitation, with an introduction written by Yasser Arafat, simply says that “at the northwest entrance to the city [Bethlehem] lies the tomb of the matriarch Rachel, who died while giving life to Benjamin.” The West Bank and Gaza – Palestine also mentions the site as the Tomb of Rachel and not as the Mosque of Bilal ibn Rabah.28 However, the Palestinian deputy minister for endowments and religious affairs has now defined Rachel’s Tomb as a Muslim site.29

On Yom Kippur in 2000, six days after the IDF withdrew from Joseph’s Tomb, the Palestinian daily newspaper Al-Hayat al-Jadida published an article marking the next target as Rachel’s Tomb. It read in part, “Bethlehem – ‘the Tomb of Rachel,’ or the Bilal ibn Rabah mosque, is one of the nails the occupation government and the Zionist movement hammered into many Palestinian cities….The tomb is false and was originally a Muslim mosque.”30

Conclusions

Beyond religious, historical, and political arguments about the right to control Jewish holy places in Judea and Samaria, the situation on the ground since the Oslo agreements has shown that the Palestinians should not be given responsibility for the sites or the roads leading to them. That responsibility should remain in Israeli hands.

The Palestinians, as they have in the past at the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, use their real or supposed religious interests to make political capital for their national campaign. The story of Rachel’s Tomb, recognized as a Jewish holy site for two thousand years31 – which has become “Rachel’s Fortress” – only serves to illustrate this.

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Notes

1. For an expanded version of this article, see Nadav Shragai, At the Crossroads, the Story of the Tomb of Rachel, Jerusalem Studies, 2005, pp. 216-26 (Al em ha-derekh, sipuro shel kever rachel, shaarim le-heker yerushalaim, 2005, 216-26).

2.  For more documentation, see Avraham Yaari, Jewish Pilgrims’ Journeys to the Land of Israel (Gazit, 1946) (Masaot eretz israel shel olim yehudim, Gazit, 1946); Zeev Vilnai, Sacred Tombstones in the Land of Israel (Rav Kook Institute, 1963) (Matzevot kodesh be-eretz israel, Mosad harav kook, 1963); Michael Ish Shalom, Christian Pilgrimages to the Land of Israel (Am Oved, 1979) (Masaot notrzim l’Eretz Israel, Am Oved, 1979); Natan Shor, “The Jewish Settlement in Jerusalem according to Franciscan Chronicles and Travellers’ Letters” (Yad Ben-Tzvi, 1979) (Ha-yeshuv ha-yehudi be-yerushalaim al pi chronickot frantziskaniot ve-kitvei nosim, Yad Ben-Tzvi, 1979); Eli Schiller, The Tomb of Rachel (Ariel, 1977) (Kever Rachel, 1977). For a summary of these and other sources, see At the Crossroads, the Story of the Tomb of Rachel, Part I, 1700 Years of Testimony (Jerusalem Studies, 2005) (Al em ha-derekh, sipuro shel kever rachel, helek alef, 1700 shanim shel eduiot, Shaarim le-heker yerushalaim, 2005).

3. See the summary in Gilad Messing, And You Were Better than Us All (Private Publication, 2001), pp. 161-4 (Ve-at alit al kulanu, hotzaa pratit, 2001, pp. 161-4).

4. See, for example, Shragai, At the Crossroads, pp. 163-5.

5. Ibid., p. 14.

6. Meiron Benvenisti, The Torn City (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1973), pp. 78-9.

7. Ibid., pp. 78-81; Shmuel Berkowitz, The Wars of the Holy Places (Jerusalem Institute for Israeli Studies and Hed Artzi, 2000), pp. 50, 54 (Milhamot ha-mekomot ha-kedoshim, Machon yerushalaim le-heker israel ve-hed artzi, 2000, pp. 50, 54).

8. Berkowitz, ibid., p. 215.

9. Ibid., pp. 215-21.

10. A biblical figure, commander-in-chief of King Saul’s army. He appears mostly in 2 Samuel.

11. “Sharm el-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee – First Statement of the Government of Israel,” Jewish Holy Sites, #233, December 28, 2000, http://www.israel.org/MFA/MFAArchive/2000_2009/2000/12/Sharm%20el-Sheikh%20Fact-Finding%20Committee%20-%20First%20Sta

12. Jonathan Dahoah Halevi, “A History of Desecrating Holy Sites,” Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Hebrew) October 29, 2007, http://www.jcpa.org.il/JCPA/Templates/showpage.asp?FID=416&DBID=1&LNGID=2&TMID=99&IID=9522

13. Shragai, At the Crossroads, pp. 198-208.

14. Danny Rubinstein, “Bethlehem does not want to be Berlin,” Ha’aretz, February 16, 1996.

15. Shragai, At the Crossroads, p. 216.

16. Ibid., p. 229.

17. Ibid., pp. 235-6.

18. Ibid., p. 242.

19. Supreme Court decision, February 3, 2005.

20. Shragai, At the Crossroads, pp. 230-1.

21. Danny Rubinstein, “The Slave and the Mother,” Ha’aretz, October 9, 1996, and a private conversation with Orientalist Yoni Dehoah-Halevi.

22. Ibid.

23. Shragai, At the Crossroads, pp. 48-52; Miginzei Kedem, Documents and Sources from the Writings of Pinhas Name, ed. Yitzhak Beck (Yad Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, 1977), pp. 30-32 (Teudot u-mekorot tokh kitvei Pinhas, Miginzei Kedem, Yad Yitzkah Ben-Tzvi, 1977, pp. 30-32).

24. Eli Schiller, The Tomb of Rachel, p. 18.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Yehoshua Porat, “Two Graves, Two Worlds,” Ma’ariv, around the same time.

28. Islam adopted the same tactic regarding the Western Wall. Further information can be found in Dr. Berkowitz’ book. He found that until the eleventh century Muslim scholars disagreed as to where the prophet Muhammad had tied al-Buraq, his winged horse, after his night ride. Some identified the place as the southern wall of the Temple Mount, others as the eastern wall, but none of them suggested any connection to the western wall, sacred to Judaism, called the Wailing Wall in the diaspora and the Western Wall in Hebrew. The claim was only made after the “Wall conflict” broke out between Jews and Muslims before the 1929 riots.

    During the riots of 1929, violence broke out in Jerusalem and on the Temple Mount. From there it spread to neighboring areas and hampered regular visits to Rachel’s Tomb. In 1929 the Wakf demanded control over the tomb, claiming it was part of the neighboring Muslim cemetery. It also demanded to renew the old Muslim custom of purifying corpses in the tomb’s antechamber (the structure added by Montefiori in 1841).

29. Shragai, At the Crossroads, p. 233.

30. Al-Hayat al-Jadida, October 8, 2000.

31. Christian sources identified the site as such almost two thousand years ago. For example, see the New Testament, Matthew 2:18.

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Nadav Shragai is the author of At the Crossroads, the Story of the Tomb of Rachel (Jerusalem Studies, 2005); The Mount of Contention, the Struggle for the Temple Mount, Jews and Muslims, Religion and Politics since 1967 (Keter, 1995); and “Jerusalem is Not the Problem, It is the Solution,” in Mister Prime Minister: Jerusalem, ed. Moshe Amirav (Carmel and the Florsheimer Institute, 2005). He has been writing for the Israeli daily newspaper Ha’aretz since 1983.

About Nadav Shragai

Nadav Shragai is the author of Jerusalem: The Dangers of Division - An Alternative to Separation from the Arab Neighborhoods (Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2008); and At the Crossroads, the Story of the Tomb of Rachel (Jerusalem Studies, 2005). He was a reporter for Ha'aretz between 1983-2010 and currently writes for Yisrael Hayom.