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Joseph’s Tomb: An Irish journalist’s invention?

Jerusalem24 – Two Israeli settlers were wounded last night when the vehicle they were traveling in was shot at by Palestinian gunmen.

The settlers were on their way to pray at Joseph’s Tomb, according to Israeli media, in a visit that was unplanned and uncoordinated with the Israeli military.

Israeli forces usually provide strict protection to Israeli settlers during their incursions into Palestinian villages and lands in the occupied West Bank. This includes the archeological site of Joseph’s tomb in Nablus.

Joseph’s Tomb is the site of frequent incursions by Israeli settlers. These incursions invariably result in confrontations between Israeli forces and local Palestinian youth as well as Palestinian fighters, often leading to Palestinians injuries and deaths. Most recently, 18-year-old Waseem Nasser Khalifa from Balata refugee camp was shot and killed by Israeli fire at Joseph’s Tomb on 18 August.

Joseph’s tomb has also been the target of Palestinian arson attacks – in 2000, 2015, and in April this year.

Speaking about the 2015 attack and the “widespread outrage” from commentators in the Israeli press that it triggered, Alex Shams writes in the Institute for Palestine Studies journal: “For Israelis, the attack seemed to indicate yet again that Palestinian violence is motivated by anti-Jewish hatred. Why would Palestinians attack a Jewish religious shrine if not because they hate Jews?”

“More or less made up”

“The reality, however, is far different than the Israeli narrative would seem to suggest,” writes Shams. “Built by Palestinians and located in the heart of a densely-populated Palestinian neighborhood, the history of Joseph’s Tomb belies Israeli claims about its identity as a Jewish holy site. It is one of many shrines across historic Palestine – now split into Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza – that has been re-invented as exclusively Jewish, despite a long history of shared worship among Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Samaritans that goes back centuries.”

According to the Jewish Virtual Library, certain archeologists believe the site is only a few centuries old and may contain the remains of a Muslim Sheikh named Yussef.

Shams explains that the modern claim that Joseph’s Tomb is the tomb of the biblical Joseph can probably be attributed to claims made by William Cooke Taylor in the 1830s. Cooke was an Irish journalist interested in biblical history but with no expertise in the field. He claimed after traveling to the region that the site was believed to be the tomb of the patriarch and that all the religions agreed as much – although no travelers to the area over the next few decades reported anything of the sort, and it is also unclear what the local Palestinians (the ones who lived around and worshipped at the shrine) actually believed themselves.

As British geographers started repeating Taylor’s claim, however, it was eventually forgotten over the years that it had been “more or less made up based on conjecture.”

Shams suggests the reason behind the Palestinian attacks on the shrine therefore have not so much to do with religion itself as with “how the Israeli military and settlement movements have used religion as a way to expand their control over Palestinian land and holy places.”

In a similar case in Hebron in the southern occupied West Bank, Israeli plans to seize the Ibrahimi Mosque have led to Palestinians seeing their access to the site stringently curtailed, and damage done to the historic building in order to accommodate Israeli expansion and restoration plans. UNESCO added the Ibrahimi Mosque and the Old City of Hebron on its list of endangered world heritage sites in 2017.

Jews believe the Ibrahimi Mosque (which they know as the Tomb of the Patriarchs) is the site where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac and Jacob are buried. Muslims, who also revere Abraham (like Christians), built the Ibrahimi Mosque in the 14th century.

The Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron. [Credit: Jim Hollander/EPA]

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