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Behind the Headlines: Ransacked Nablus Yeshiva Off-limits for Simchat Torah

For the first time in 15 years, there were no Simchat Torah celebrations here.

The celebrations were but one of the casualties of the three days of violence that erupted late last month in the West Bank and Gaza Strip after Israel opened a new entrance to a tunnel located near the Temple Mount.

On Sept. 26, the second day of the clashes, armed Palestinian police and stone- throwing civilians stormed Joseph’s Tomb and the adjacent Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva, a Jewish island in the heart of Arab Nablus, which has 130,000 Arab residents and is the largest Palestinian population center in the West Bank.

The Palestinians laid siege to the Jewish site, trapping a group of Israel Defense Force soldiers stationed there.

As Israeli army reinforcements arrived, they were shot at from rooftops near the yeshiva: Six Israeli soldiers were killed during the ensuing clash as they attempted to rescue the other troops trapped within the buildings at Joseph’s Tomb.

After a fierce gun battle, a tank evacuated the remaining Israeli soldiers.

The Palestinians then stormed Joseph’s Tomb, ransacked the yeshiva there, burned hundreds of religious books and set one of the buildings on fire.

Palestinians took to the streets that week to vent their anger after Palestinian leaders warned that the tunnel entrance Israel opened near the Temple Mount posed a threat to Islamic holy sites there.

But when it came to Jewish holy sites in Nablus, according to some observers, Palestinians were apparently far less concerned about acts of desecration.

After regaining control of Joseph’s Tomb, the IDF carted away from the yeshiva two truckloads of damaged religious books.

The IDF Central Command last week completed its inquiry into the Palestinian assault on the tomb and found flaws in the behavior of the Israeli commanders who called in the reinforcements.

It also said the ability of Palestinian police and rioters to enter the compound reflected a serious security lapse.

The inquiry added that the soldiers sent to rescue the trapped troops had shown intense courage when battling with the Palestinians. It also praised the IDF’s evacuation of the wounded.

The inquiry, which focused solely on IDF activities, did not include a condemnation of the Palestinian desecration of a Jewish holy site.

In the aftermath of the September clashes, 15 Israelis and 60 Palestinians were killed, and hundreds were wounded.

The 60 students at the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva, who were not at the site during the Sept. 26 battle, have not been allowed to return there by the army, which has turned Joseph’s Tomb into a closed military compound.

As a result, Simchat Torah was not celebrated there this year. The festivities were diverted to a military camp near the Arab village of Hawara, located about three miles south of Nablus.

Earlier this week, a visitor came for the conclusion of the celebrations and to assess the mood of the teachers and students at the yeshiva.

After passing Hawara, which was immersed in darkness after the IDF had placed the village under a curfew, the visitor suddenly came upon an array of lights, loud music, and hundreds of Jews singing and dancing around the Torah scrolls.

“I feel in exile,” Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg, head of the yeshiva, said of the IDF decision to close off Joseph’s Tomb.

Nearby were circles of youths, hugging Torahs as they sang and danced. Ginsburg evidently did not share their joy.

Some of the books that were burned last month were on display. A yeshiva student, carrying two huge empty jars, urged people to donate generously to help rebuild the yeshiva.

The Jewish presence in Nablus has long been the subject of controversy, with some saying that it should never have been established there in the first place.

Some of the Jews who were forced 15 years ago to leave Yamit — a settlement in the Sinai, which was to be turned over to Egypt as part of the peace treaty signed at the time with Cairo — relocated here to establish a yeshiva at Joseph’s Tomb.

The move annoyed not only the yeshiva’s Arab neighbors, said Ginsburg, but also the IDF.

“It’s not that they don’t want us there,” Ginsburg said of the IDF. “But they have to make an effort. The army does not want headaches.”

He is confident that the bloodshed of Sept. 26 could have been prevented had the IDF security branches allowed the yeshiva students to live permanently at Joseph’s Tomb.

The army, reflecting a government policy not to allow the development of a Jewish settlement in Nablus, has insisted that the yeshiva students leave the site every evening and spend the night at the neighboring settlements of Yitzhar and Elon Moreh.

After the IDF turned Nablus over to Palestinian self-rule in December 1995, teachers and students were no longer allowed to travel to the yeshiva in their own vehicles.

Instead, they came to the yeshiva each morning under a heavily protected army escort.

Had there been a permanent Jewish settlement in Nablus, said Ginsburg, the army would have maintained a stronger military presence there.

This, he added, would have prevented the tragic events of Sept. 26.

To Palestinians living near the yeshiva, a permanent Jewish presence there would only mean the creation of another Hebron, the volatile West Bank town in which 450 Jewish settlers live amid some 100,000 Arabs.

Less than one mile down the road from Joseph’s Tomb, at the edge of the Balata refugee camp, lives Dalal Salameh.

At 30, she is the youngest member of the Palestinian legislative council elected in January.

She prays that the IDF will not allow the tomb and yeshiva to reopen, she said during an interview.

“A Jewish yeshiva virtually inside a Palestinian refugee camp — this cannot have a happy end,” she said.

Not surprisingly, the people at Od Yosef Chai are doing their utmost to prevent Salameh’s prayers from being answered.

“We believe it is realistic that we can return to Nablus as soon as possible,” said Zvi Bernstock, director of the yeshiva, who added that pressures are being exerted on the Defense Ministry to give the green light for their return.

Ginsburg has meanwhile issued an urgent appeal to Jews everywhere to help rebuild the yeshiva, replace the library and refurnish the study hall.

British philanthropists Cyril Stein and Conrad Morris, who have created a fund for that purpose, have donated $100,000 and are seeking another $400,000 from other donors.

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