What happened at Joseph’s Tomb in October 2000?
Tomb of Joseph Under Attack
In the early days of the al-Aqsa Intifada, on the morning of October 7, 2000, Israel withdrew the small contingent of IDF border policemen who had been guarding the site of the Tomb of the Patriarch Joseph and its Yeshiva. The holy site was located in Shechem in Samaria, the town the Arabs call “Nablus”. Over the preceeding days, the Tomb had been attacked with gunfire, stones, and firebombs. The IDF defenders in the compound withstood the attacks and stopped several attempts by armed Palestinians to break in. An IDF border policemen was wounded, and the heavy rioting prevented his evacuation for treatment in time to save his life.
In order to prevent further loss of life and to lower tensions in the area, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak authorized the temporary evacuation of the site, based on the agreement of the Palestinian Authority (PA) to safeguard the location, in accordance with their obligations under the Oslo Accords to protect holy sites, Jewish and Christian, and ensure access by all. The PA also pledged to prevent any vandalism and to return the Tomb to its original state after the violence settled down.
The PA pledge was brazenly violated about two hours after the Israeli evacuation, when a Palestinian Arab mob entered the Tomb compound and began to systematically destroy everything in sight, including all remnants of the Yeshiva. The furniture and books that were left behind were burned by the mob. The Palestinian police stood by, failing to prevent any of these violent activities, despite their committment to guard the Tomb. Within hours, Joseph’s Tomb was reduced to a smoldering heap of rubble. Within two days, as an Associated Press dispatch reported, “the dome of the tomb was painted green and bulldozers were seen clearing the surrounding area,” as the Palestinian Arabs sought to transform the biblical Joseph’s resting place into a Moslem holy site.
Israel’s withdrawal from the site was later understood as a grave strategic error. It marked the first time that the IDF had withdrawn under fire, surrendering territory to Palestinian Arab violence. Coming barely a week after the start of the al-Aqsa Intifada, the retreat from Joseph’s Tomb sent a dangerous signal to Yasser Arafat, confirming that violence would force Israel to capitulate.
The retreat was also an affront to Jewish history and tradition, as Joseph’s Tomb had long been a focus of Jewish pilgrimage and prayer. The late Dr. Zvi Ilan, one of Israel’s foremost archeologists, described Joseph’s Tomb as:
- … one of the tombs whose location is known with the utmost degree of certainty and is based on continuous documentation since biblical times. (“Tombs of the Righteous in the Land of Israel”, p. 365)
The Book of Joshua (24:32) states explicitly:
- The bones of Joseph which the Children of Israel brought up from Egypt were buried in Shechem in the portion of the field that had been purchased by Jacob. (See also Gen. 33:19; Gen, 48:21-22; Gen. 50:24-25.)
The Midrash and other ancient texts mention the site, as did the early Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, who visited it nearly 1,700 years ago. Arab geographers, medieval Jewish pilgrims, Samaritan historians and 19th-century British cartographers provide consistent confirmation of the site’s location and verification as the true tomb of the Patriarch Joseph. After thousands of years of veneration by all faiths, Palestinian Arabs suddenly asserted the site was the tomb of a different holy man, a Muslim named Joseph, giving them an excuse to convert the location into a mosque.
The strategic error of withdrawing from Joseph’s Tomb is unlikely to be repeated. When fire bombings and gunfire resumed at Rachel?s Tomb outside Bethlehem in 2002, the Israeli cabinet decided to include the site, by then fortified with barbed wire and concrete structures, within the boundaries of a security zone to be constructed around Jerusalem.