Several groups of Jewish worshippers are planning to visit the site of the tomb of the biblical Joseph in Shechem this Sunday, despite plans by the IDF to block the pilgrimage.
IDF officials said Thursday they are barring Jews from visiting the site next Sunday due to concrete security warnings of terrorist attacks in the area. They also promised they would allow the worshippers to visit the site if and when the security situation changed.
Several months ago, 35 MKs signed a letter to the IDF Central Command demanding the army re-open the site and provide proper security for worshippers who visit the tomb. The letter was signed by Knesset Members from the National Union–National Religious Party, United Torah Judaism, Shas, Likud, Kadima, Pensioners’ Party and Yisrael Beiteinu.
Three years ago pilgrimages to the site were suspended by IDF Central Command, citing concerns for Jewish security.
The trip is planned in honor of the 41st day in the counting of the Omer, a day traditionally considered the anniversary of Joseph's death. Each of the seven weeks of the Omer period, and each of the days within each week, is associated with a different attribute corresponding to a different forefather; the 41st day, as the sixth day of the sixth week, is that of "Yesod', or "foundation", which is associated with Joseph.
The site is "one of the tombs whose location is known with the utmost degree of certainty and is based on continuous documentation since Biblical times," according to Dr. Tzvi Ilan, who was one of Israel's most prominent archaeologists. The Book of Joshua (24:32) states: “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.”
For generations, Jewish worshippers made their way to Joseph’s tomb - until 1948, when it came under Jordanian control. Access to the site was restored in 1967 following the Six-Day War, when Israel liberated the area.
By the 1980’s, a new Jewish presence, the Od Yosef Chai (“Joseph Still Lives”) yeshiva was founded, and Torah students learned at the site full-time. The yeshiva students were expelled from the site less than 20 years later, after the IDF retreated from Joseph’s Tomb in the first weeks of the Oslo War, in late 2000.
The pullout was marked by an episode that is remembered for the manner in which wounded IDF soldier Madhat Yusuf was abandoned. Yusuf, wounded by Arab gunfire, bled to death at the holy site as the IDF chose to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority for his evacuation instead of sending troops in to rescue him.
With the Oslo agreements, it was turned over to the Palestinian Authority, but with "guarantees" that Jews were to have freedom of access and freedom of worship at this site, acknowledged as having Jewish sanctity.
The arrangement didn’t last.
“Freedom of access and freedom of worship” at the site was constantly disrupted by attacks, often emanating from the terrorist-infested city of Shechem.
The frequency of those deadly attacks finally led the IDF to return to the area in the 2002 counter-terrorism initiative, Operation Defensive Shield. Monthly visits by Jews to the tomb were arranged, and once again PA terror took control of Jewish access to the holy site.
Pilgrimages to the Tomb of Joseph are, to this day, barred when intelligence reports say terrorists are planning to strike.