The largest legal entry of Jews to Joseph’s Tomb in a decade still left many wouldbe worshipers stranded, and hundreds entered Nablus illegally on foot before dawn on Monday, intent on praying in the small stone structure.
While 1,600 people were able to travel in protected buses to the tomb in coordination with the IDF, the number of people who thronged to the outskirts of Nablus from 11 p.m. Sunday through dawn on Monday was such that the buses headed to the Palestinian Authority- controlled city were unable to accommodate them.
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Rather than return home, frustrated pilgrims headed on foot to the tomb through the nearby fields.
Some were immediately caught by the IDF and turned back. Others made it to the tomb, located at the site of the biblical city of Shechem, and were bused out with the rest of the worshipers.
Toward dawn, a small group of worshipers holed themselves up in the tomb and refused to leave. Some climbed onto the roof of the tomb. Using ladders, soldiers went up after them and brought them down.
The army estimated that some 200 worshipers illegally entered the city, but settlers say the numbers were much higher. Around 50 of those worshipers clashed with the IDF, and three were arrested.
“This behavior risks lives and leads to the unnecessary risking of the lives of soldiers who were forced to act even in daylight in the center of Nablus,” the IDF said.
The army that some of the worshipers vandalized Palestinian property.
“The IDF sees the behavior of the infiltrators as severely irresponsible and it will be examined in cooperation with various security forces, who will also check the nature of the security to be in place over entrance to Joseph’s Tomb for the future,” the army’s representative said.
On April 24, PA police shot and killed an Israeli worshiper, Ben-Yosef Livnat, 25, after he entered Nablus illegally to pray at the tomb.
On Sunday, IDF Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz said the Palestinian police had deliberately opened fire on Livnat and those who were with him.
Last week, the Defense Ministry recognized Livnat as a victim of terrorism.
The IDF has authorized entry to the tomb once a month in the pre-dawn hours, in coordination with Israeli security forces and the PA. Would-be-worshipers and area settlers, including Samaria Regional Council head Gershon Mesika, say the limited access is insufficient. Both Mesika and the One Shechem Organization arranged Monday’s trip to the tomb, as well as previous trips. They have called on the government to place the tomb under Israeli sovereignty, as was guaranteed under the Oslo Accords, and to allow regular day-time access.
Last week, a group of MKs had planned a day-time visit, but the IDF canceled it at the last moment for security reasons.
Mesika said on Monday, “I hope the entry of thousands of people, which is emotional and warms the heart, is one more step toward restoring full sovereignty to Joseph’s Tomb.”
Monday’s early morning entry was timed to coincide with the 41st day in the 49 days of the Counting of the Omer between Pessah and Shavuot, kabbalistically associated with Joseph.
Among those who prayed at the tomb on Monday were members of Livnat’s family and his rabbi, Eliezer Berland, of the Breslav Hasidim, who support prayer at the tomb.
Worshipers of all ages streamed to the tomb from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and nearby settlements.
A few yeshiva students brought a pizza on the bus with them as they headed out from Jerusalem, already singing and clapping.
While some buses headed straight through to the tomb, others dropped their passengers off at a parking lot outside the city, so they could board protected vehicles.
Worshipers sang and danced as they waited. In one corner of the lot, a vendor sold hot popcorn and cotton candy.
But frustration grew as it became evident that it would be impossible to fit everyone onto the buses. The vehicles were so crowded that when they left the lot, it was hard to close the doors.
A few scuffles broke out with IDF soldiers stationed at the edge of the lot, near the fields by Nablus, who tried to prevent infiltrators from heading to the city.
Eventually, at around 2 p.m., one of the organizers picked up a bullhorn and said that no more buses would be heading into the city from that lot.
“Anyone with complaints should work to change the government,” he said.
But activist teens and young adults offered instead to lead pilgrims to the city on foot.
“It’s just a half-an-hour walk,” several worshipers said.
The soldiers who had been there moments before, had left.
Within minutes, worshipers were streaming across a field of grass in the direction of Nablus.
But not everyone made the journey.
Three American yeshiva students who had left Ramat Beit Shemesh at 9 p.m. made it no farther than the parking lot, and opted to hitch a ride back to Jerusalem instead.
They said they were seeking a more unique prayer experience, as compared with the more standard fare of Jerusalem and Hebron.
Josh Seidman, 19, from Teaneck, New Jersey, who is leaving Israel soon, said he identified with the biblical Joseph who had been successful outside of Israel.
Sitting on the sidewalk with her baby in a sling on her chest, Ruti Ben-Avraham of Shiloh said she had hoped to bring her son for his first visit to the tomb.
Orna Siman Tov of the nearby settlement of Elon Moreh, stood with her four small children, ages five, six, and two twin eight-year old boys, uncertain if her hopes of praying at the tomb would be dashed. The sixyear old boy clutched a blanket in his hands.
Her family has been to the tomb often enough that they all feel close to their biblical ancestor, she said.
“I love him,” her eight-year-old son Alon Binyamin said.
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