Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Palestinian Authority and the Jewish Holy Sites in the West Bank: Rachel's Tomb as a Test Case. Part II


by Nadav Shragai


2nd part of 2


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



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.

*     *     *



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,

12. Jonathan Dahoah Halevi, "A History of Desecrating Holy Sites," Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Hebrew) October 29, 2007,

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.



Nadav Shragai is the author of At the Crossroads, the Story of the Tomb of Rachel (Jerusalem Studies, 2005).

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.


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