A holy site at a bunker

Anyone who thinks that Jews and Arabs should just carve up the map and call it quits ought to visit Joseph's Tomb. There is perhaps no other place that shows how complicated and intertwined the two peoples' land, history, and religions are than this site.

That is, no other place except Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and the Tomb of the Prophet Samuel outside Jerusalem - all burial sites mentioned in the Bible, all situated in the disputed West Bank, and almost all revered by both Jews and Muslims - as well as Christians.

But the journey to Joseph's Tomb is the most surreal. Each day, a group of young Jewish men boards a bulletproof bus outside Nablus. Accompanied by an Israeli army escort, they enter a city now under the control of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. Driving past the hostile stares of residents, the bus arrives at a bunker inside a sprawling refugee camp, where the small domed tomb is located.

This complex arrangement for Jewish holy sites in autonomous Arab areas is a page of the Oslo peace accords that neither Israelis nor Palestinians seem to like. Some Palestinians say that Joseph's Tomb was a sheikh's burial chamber, and others say its reclamation after the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1967 was a way for Israeli nationalists to stake a permanent claim on West Bank land. Others, like the mayor of Nablus, say it's simply a powder keg.

Israelis are split. Left-wing secularists don't see any reason that their sons should have to put their lives on the line to protect an obscure, holy outpost most Israelis never visit. But the people who come to pray here say this is one of the most sacred places in Judaism.

Elsewhere, Jews and Arabs still pray side by side, though not together. Until 1994, Jews and Muslims jockeyed for space inside the traditional burial site of Abraham, Sarah, and the other Biblical patriarchs and matriarchs. But after a Jewish extremist opened fire on Muslim worshipers there, killing 29, prayer space has been segregated.

At the Tomb of the Prophet Samuel outside Jerusalem, Muslims and Jews still pray in the same building in a rare atmosphere of peace. Area residents say that is because the tomb is distant from any Palestinian population centers - thus avoiding the sentiment that the army presence at the tomb somehow extends the Israeli military occupation.

Rachel's Tomb, on the contrary, is at the entrance to burgeoning, urbanized Bethlehem. And during times of tension, the tomb and Israeli soldiers guarding it come under attack by Palestinian rioters.

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