BETHEL, West Bank, Sept. 20 (RNS)--The few hot and dusty tourists climbthe forlorn steps of the crumbling watchtower of Bethel, the placewhere the Bible says the patriarch Jacob once dreamed his famous dreamof a ladder reaching up into the heavens, and where Abraham erected analtar to God.

The staircase, where wild bushes grow from cracks in the stone, waspart of the tower built in the second or third century B.C., when Bethelwas a bustling city. Nearby are the foundation stones of aByzantine-era monastery from the fifth or sixth century A.D., apparentlybuilt to commemorate the biblical story of Jacob's dream associated withthe site.

Ancient Bethel, on the border of the biblical kingdoms of Israel andJudea, is mentioned in the Old Testament more times than Jerusalem.

It was in honor of Bethel, and the celebrated story of Jacob'sladder, that the modern-day West Bank Jewish settlement of Beit El wasbuilt in the 1970s, one of the first to rise up following Israel's 1967conquest of the West Bank.

Countless synagogues and churches in theUnited States--not to mention towns and other communities--also have taken their name from this famous site, one ofthe pivotal landmarks of biblical history. The traditional hymn "WeAre Climbing Jacob's Ladder" is an integral part of American Sundayschool gospel heritage.

Today, however, the tower of Bethel is slowly crumbling from weatherand neglect.

Like many other key biblical landmarks in the West Bank, Betheltoday is the victim of a tug-of-war over land and religious heritagedragging on between Israelis and Palestinians despite years of peacetalks and interim arrangements.

Jerusalem's holy sites have taken center stage in the peacenegotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But there are alsodozens of other religious and historic sites scattered around the WestBank, sites like Bethel that could become a flash point for conflict inany final status agreement--sites that are slowly decaying while theirpolitical status remains unresolved.

As enclaves of Israeli rule in a sea of Palestinian territory, siteslike Bethel have become isolated, neglected, and ignored by Israeli aswell as Palestinian antiquities authorities.

"They are in a kind of no man's land," said Adel Yahya, a West BankPalestinian archaeologist who has become deeply involved in trying torestore and preserve the West Bank's biblical archaeological sites."They are deteriorating rapidly because they don't have any kind ofprotection from either the Palestinian Authority or from the IsraeliDepartment of Antiquities."

Bethel's famous tower, for example, is located on the fringes of aMuslim Arab village known as Beitin, whose name recalls the site, althoughmost tour guides tend to shy away from West Bank locales like Beitinbecause of the political instability.

Even Jewish settlers from the bustling settlement of Beit El, less than a mile away, rarely visit.

Recently, however, Yahya has begun to escort Israeli and foreigntourists to Bethel and other such sites as part of the"off-the-beaten-track" Holy Land tours that he directs through hisorganization, Palestine Archaeological and Cultural Exchange (PACE).

Other long-ignored West Bank sites on his itinerary include thefamous Gibeon's Well, where the biblical prophet Joshua prayed to makethe sun stand still to give him time to complete a battle with theAmorites, and Tel al-Nasbah, or "Mitzpeh," where Saul, first king of Israel,established his capital.

While such sites are largely associated with Christian and Jewishbiblical history, they have also acquired a sacred status among Muslimvillagers, some of whom have lived on the land for most of the past millennium.

Given the existing vacuum of political and archaeological authority,Yahya has seized upon local traditions to engage villagers in modestefforts to stop some of the deterioration at the sites while waitingfor a peace settlement.

"Local Palestinian villagers usually don't understand the precisehistorical significance of the sites, but they understand theirimportance in some strange way," Yahya said.

"The tower of Bethel in Beitin, for instance, is not mentioned inthe Qur'an, but yet through all of these centuries it was preserved," hesaid. "When a garbage dump started to develop ad hoc near the site, Iwent to the village dignitaries to enlist their help in moving thegarbage and cleaning up, and they readily agreed.

"They told me that Bethel was known to them as the 'Assembly of theProphets,' and said that this is a place where the Prophet Muhammadstopped over on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and led the biblicalpatriarchs Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac in prayer.

This is the localtradition that explains the site to them. When we told them that it wasalso associated with the story of Jacob and the dream of the ladder,they were amazed."