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Archaeology in Israel: Joseph’s Tomb

Joseph’s Tomb is located in the heart of Nablus, in the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank. Conflicting views exist as to whether or not the patriarch Joseph was buried there; nevertheless, the tomb is recognized as a Jewish shrine, albeit a minor one. According to Jewish tradition, Joseph was buried in the biblical town of Shechem, which is near the present-day city of Nablus. Some archeologists believe the site is only a few centuries old and may contain the remains of a Muslim sheik named Yossef.

Following the 1967 War, Israel regained access to the site, and a small Jewish seminary was built there in the 1980s. The site was also used as a military outpost, and several soldiers were stationed there to protect the seminary students and the site itself. Nablus was returned to the Palestinians in 1995, but the Israelis retained control over the site.

According to the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority is responsible for the site's security, and Jewish worshipers are allowed unhindered access to it.

When violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians began in the West Bank in October 2000, six Palestinians and one Israeli were killed in fighting around the tomb. The Israeli army subsequently agreed to withdraw on October 7 and turn over control of the site to the Palestinian police, who were supposed to guard it. Instead, the Palestinian Police stood by as a mob ransacked the place, burned books, and destroyed reading stands; the crowd also burned down the army outpost. On that same day, an American-born rabbi, who taught at the seminary, was found slain outside Nablus.

The Tomb in the Early 1900s

The Mayor of Nablus, Ghassan Shakaa, said the site would be repaired. Workers were seen fixing the damage; however, they were also painting the top of the dome green - the color of Islam. Workers say they want to return the shrine to its former appearance before 1967, but news reports indicated the Palestinians were planning to build a mosque.

For Israelis, the destruction of a Jewish shrine raised severe doubts about whether the Palestinian Authority would protect religious sites belonging to Jews and Christians and guarantee access. Israel guarantees access to all holy places under its control according to the 1967 Law for the protection of the holy places.

In 2014, Palestinians tried to burn down the tomb during a protest.

Violence surrounding access to the Temple Mount stoked by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority (PA) sparked attacks on Joseph’s Tomb in October 2015. A crowd of 100 Palestinians descended on the Tomb, throwing Molotov cocktails and setting the area ablaze. In a rare response, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned the attack and ordered the damage be repaired.

On April 10, 2022, Palestinian rioters stormed the site, shattered the tombstone, and set it on fire. “The vandalism of Joseph’s Tomb is a grave event and a serious violation of freedom of worship in one of the holiest places for every Jew,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz tweeted.

Palestinians also opened fire at Jewish worshipers and Israeli forces at the tomb in June, July, and August. The visits were monthly pilgrimages to the site coordinated with the military. The IDF subsequently said it would reinforce the infrastructure at the site.

There were multiple incidents in 2023. In July, for example, armed Palestinians opened fire, hurled explosive devices, and blocked roads with burning tires as Jewish worshipers approached the tomb.

Sources: Richard Cohen, “Joseph’s Tomb,” Washington Post, (October 10, 2000).
Joel Greenburg, “Palestinians destroy the Israeli site that was the scene of many clashes,” New York Times, (October 8, 2000).
“Who is buried in embattled shrine: Joseph or Muslim sheikh?” CNN, (October 11, 2000).
“Palestinians try to burn Joseph’s Tomb as protests reignite,” Times of Israel, (July 7, 2014).
Ari Rabinovitch, “Palestinians set fire to Jewish shrine; Israeli soldier stabbed,” Reuters, (October 16, 2015).
“Palestinians vandalize West Bank shrine as tensions soar,” Arab News, (April 10, 2022).
Elisha Ben Kimon, “Palestinians vandalize Joseph’s Tomb amid security tensions,” Ynet, April 10, 2022).
“IDF to reinforce structure of Joseph's Tomb following violent clashes – report,” Jerusalem Post, (August 18, 2022).
Tovah Lazaroff, “Palestinians open fire at Israelis visiting Joseph’s Tomb, two injured,” Jerusalem Post, August 30, 2022).
Emanuel Fabian, “Palestinian teen killed in clashes with IDF during pilgrimage to Joseph’s Tomb,” Times of Israel, July 20, 2023).

Photo: Tom Miller, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Early 1900s - Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.