Beliefnet

NABLUS, West Bank, Oct. 7 (AP)--Joseph's Tomb, the flashpoint in a week of bitter West Bank clashes, is now a casualty of war.

The steps leading down to the tomb are strewn with stones chipped off the walls. The top of the dome is smashed through in two places. Inside the tomb, soggy books, burned sleeping bags and scattered cans of food litter the muddy floor, and the walls are charred black from fire.

But the stone sarcophagus is untouched, perhaps the one object still respected at this holy site, revered by some as the burial place of the biblical patriarch. The compound was home to a Jewish seminary, where about 30 students would study during the day.

The Israeli army evacuated the outpost before dawn on Saturday, after clashes there last week killed six Palestinians and an Israeli border policeman. The seminary had been closed during the violence.

Palestinian security officials were left standing guard as hundreds of Palestinians converged on the square in front of the site, cheering the withdrawal.

With the arrival of dozens of Palestinian gunmen, the celebration degenerated into a trashing of the compound, with crowds vandalizing the tomb, setting fires and hammering away at the stone buildings.

``We did it so the Jews never come back,'' said Haitham Najid Kabee, 14, who vandalized the tomb with his friends.

Nablus Gov. Mahmoud Aloul came to the square to plead with the vandals to stop.

``We should protect this building and make it a symbol for our martyrs who were killed defending it,'' said Aloul, whose son was killed in clashes last week. ``We will stop here together and prevent any Jews from coming back to this place.''

But the governor's call went unheeded. Demonstrators threw Jewish prayer books from the tomb, burning and tearing them. Some laughing teens walked out of the compound wearing Israeli helmets and vests found inside.

Dozens climbed on the roof of the tomb and began hammering, breaking off chunks of rock. By late afternoon, firefighters had put out three fires in the compound.

People still wandered curiously around the small enclave, now topped by a large flag of the radical Islamic group Hamas, and a smaller Palestinian flag.

``I am very happy,'' said Nidal Abdel Jawad, 40. ``It was still occupation as long as they were here.''

Israel radio reported that Nablus Mayor Ghassan Shakaa pledged to begin rebuilding the tomb Sunday, if the security situation permits.

The withdrawal of troops from the tomb marked the first time Israel has relinquished territory as a direct result of Palestinian violence.

Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said the enclave had become a liability. Six Palestinians and an Israeli border policeman died in clashes at the site.

``The Palestinians betrayed their commitment and have let this shrine fall into the hands of the mob waiting outside,'' said Israeli government spokesman Nahman Shai. He said the government ``deeply deplores'' the trashing of the tomb.

A statement by the 15-member European Union also condemned the destruction.

The tomb's holiness is disputed, as tradition holds that Joseph was actually buried in Egypt; the connection of the site to Joseph is a relatively recent local Arab tradition also observed by some Jews.

``What I want to understand is if Joseph is not buried there, why this place was so important,'' said Abdul Fateh Sayed, 62, whose bookstore across the street was hit by stray bullets in the fighting.

``Now it's over. We are very happy,'' he said, leafing through a thick law book, its pages shot through by bullets. ``There should never have been a military base in a civilian area.''

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