Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has announced that two religious sites in the West Bank will be added to the country's national heritage list. The Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem will now be included in a $107m Israeli restoration plan.
Anyone unfamiliar with the West Bank may be wondering what the big deal is. What can possibly be wrong with restoring the Tomb of the burial site of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob -- or of Rachel?
Answer: because these “restorations” are a key means of annexing Palestinian land and consolidating settlements.
The Tomb of the Patriarchs - which Muslims call the al-Ibrahimi mosque - has been a flashpoint for decades, with 500 Jewish settlers living in enclaves near the disputed site, surrounded by 170,000 Palestinians.
When I visited Rachel's Tomb in 2006, the way that Israelis use religious sites to colonise the West Bank suddenly became very clear.
Before 2000, the tomb of “Raquel” – the Biblical matriarch -- lay at the end of the main Jerusalem road into Bethlehem, a considerable way inside the town. After the town’s main gate, you came into a bustling street full of pizza parlours, falafel shops and souvenir shops. It was a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians – all of whom had some religious connection to the tomb – would mix and meet.
Under the British mandate, Palestinians controlled the site, but Jews, Muslims and Christians all had access to it. “Raquel” is a matriarch revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike; but there was also a Muslim holy site next to Rachel’s tomb known as the mosque of Bilal Bin Rabah, where holy mullahs were buried, and Muslims came to pay their respects there too.
After 1967 Muslims were banned from praying at the site, and from burying their dead there. The crescent was removed from the tomb doors. In 1994, at the time of the Oslo agreement, the Israelis began fortifying the tomb, ostensibly to protect it from attacks.
Then the Intifadah broke out, and the Israelis put a checkpoint on the entrance to Bethlehem. That killed the local businesses. But people assumed that once tensions subsided, the checkpoint would be removed. But it wasn’t. In 2002, the Israelis began to build their “security fence”, which is mostly a 30-foot-high concrete wall, corralling Bethlehem and imprisoning its inhabitants.
Bethlehemites watched in astonishment as the Israelis built the wall along a path that suddenly snakes into Bethlehem, following the old Jerusalem road, and around Rachel’s Tomb, creating, in effect, an Israeli-only corridor from Jerusalem to the tomb. The land in between the two arms of the wall – it almost goes without saying -- has been seized by the Israelis on “security grounds”: the mostly Christian families who own the land have received letters saying their property has been requisitioned for security purposes. As soon became clear, the land was requisitioned for one purpose only -- to extend the Israeli-only settlement of Gilo as far as the Tomb. The construction of those settlements is already well under way.
When I visited the tomb in 2006, I went through a gap in the wall which the Israeli buses bringing settlers from Gilo used to reverse. (it is closed now.) Under the gaze of Israeli soldiers, I walked through that hole, knowing that my foreign passport would keep me safe, down a strip of land with 30-foot-high concrete walls either side of it under the watchful eye of a look-out post with a gun emplacement.
The soldier at the entrance of the tomb looked at my passport and waved me in. I put on a kipa, and entered. The room was filled with pallid Orthodox Jews nodding in prayer; the walls were lined with holy books. We were close to the centre of Christian-Muslim Arab Bethlehem, yet I was in a Jewish capsule, surrounded by concrete walls and Israeli soldiers with machine guns.
Outside the tomb I asked the Israeli soldier what had happened to the Muslim burial place mentioned in the book I had with me, Karen Armstrong’s Jerusalem. He knew, and I knew, it had been destroyed. But he shrugged and pretended to know nothing about it.
An Australian girl overheard our conversation and asked to see the reference. As she read the relevant passage, the soldier told me the bus was arriving to take me back to Jerusalem. I realised, suddenly, that he thought I was Jewish.
No, that’s okay, I said cheerfully. I’m staying in Bethlehem.
The soldier could barely believe it. “You’re staying there?” he sneered. I had to pinch myself to realize he was talking about a town we were actually in.
“It’s a great place,” I said. “Very hospitable. Great food.”
The Australian girl was even more astonished. “You’re staying there, on the other side of the wall?” she said, shaking her head. “But isn’t it dangerous?”
“Not at all,” I said. “Much safer than where I live in London. It’s a gentle, peaceful, hospitable place.”
She looked very confused.
“Why not see for yourself?” I suggested, pointing out the gap in the wall I had come through only a few feet away. “You just go through there. I’ll show you round.”
“But I can’t,” she objected. “I’m Jewish.”
“It’s only Israelis who aren’t allowed through – by the Israelis,” I said. “You’re Australian, so no problem. They love visitors here, whatever their religion.”
“But they’ll stone me!” she said. And I realized she was serious.
“Nonsense!” I reassured her. “They’ll charm you, and welcome you. There’s a Jewish guy from the US in my hotel – he’s having a great time.”
She looked at the gap in the wall, a little panicked now.
“Go on,” I said. “All you have to do is walk through there. It’s just a few steps away.”
I watched as the mixture of hope and fear in her eyes turned to relief as the bus pulled up to take her back to Jerusalem.
“Maybe another time,” she said, handing me back the book, adding: “You know, I hope this wall can come down one day. But sometimes you have to build walls in order to pull them down.”
“That’s a monstrous idea,” I said, but she had gone.
What Mr Netanyahu told his cabinet last week, explaining the restoration plan:
"Our existence here doesn't just depend on the might of the military or our economic and technological strength. It is anchored first and foremost in our national and emotional legacy."