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

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

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

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

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

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

Like many other key biblical landmarks in the West Bank, Bethel today is the victim of a tug-of-war over land and religious heritage dragging on between Israelis and Palestinians despite years of peace talks and interim arrangements.

Jerusalem's holy sites have taken center stage in the peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. But there are also dozens of other religious and historic sites scattered around the West Bank, sites like Bethel that could become a flash point for conflict in any final status agreement--sites that are slowly decaying while their political status remains unresolved.

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

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

Bethel's famous tower, for example, is located on the fringes of a Muslim Arab village known as Beitin, whose name recalls the site, although most tour guides tend to shy away from West Bank locales like Beitin because 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 foreign tourists to Bethel and other such sites as part of the "off-the-beaten-track" Holy Land tours that he directs through his organization, Palestine Archaeological and Cultural Exchange (PACE).

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

While such sites are largely associated with Christian and Jewish biblical history, they have also acquired a sacred status among Muslim villagers, 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 modest efforts to stop some of the deterioration at the sites while waiting for a peace settlement.

"Local Palestinian villagers usually don't understand the precise historical significance of the sites, but they understand their importance in some strange way," Yahya said.

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

"They told me that Bethel was known to them as the 'Assembly of the Prophets,' and said that this is a place where the Prophet Muhammad stopped over on his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and led the biblical patriarchs Abraham, Jacob, and Isaac in prayer. This is the local tradition that explains the site to them. When we told them that it was also associated with the story of Jacob and the dream of the ladder, they were amazed."

Nearby in Gibeon, the remains of the ancient biblical town are even more extensive and impressive than Bethel. But the excavations, begun in the 1950s, have been largely buried, protected by the earth that hid them for centuries until a more favorable political climate--and bigger archaeological budgets--will permit the ancient town's restoration.

Gibeon's impressive 11th- or 12th-century water pool is still visible to tourists, however. The deep, conical hole carved into solid rock and accessed by a 79-step circular staircase, also of stone, once collected water from a spring situated outside the city's fortified walls in times of siege. Dozens of round holes, cut in the rock nearby, mark the entrances to the wine cellars that made this city famous for its grape products in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C.

Twenty-five years ago, Gibeon was a popular destination of Israeli tourist guides who came with large busloads of visiting American Jewish youths through the adjacent Arab village of El-Jib.

"What better place than Gibeon to illustrate the link between a people and its land and Bible," said Yadin Roman, a former guide and now the editor of the Israeli geographic magazine ERETZ, in a recent retrospective article on his frequent visits to the Gibeon site.

Initially, he said, the villagers welcomed the visitors while trying to sell them drinks and souvenirs. But the local sales initiatives were largely shunned by the guides, and as political tensions in the wider region heightened, the Israeli groups eventually found themselves unwelcome in the town.

"Biblical Gibeon, the place where God was revealed to Solomon in a dream, the city of the Prophet Hananiah, went back to being El-Jib. The kids from America now visit Massada instead," Roman wrote.

More recently, Yahya has been working with the Palestinian villagers to try to bring back the tourists and demonstrate how the village might also benefit from such visits in an era of peace and permanent borders.

Even in today's troubled times, he has received the village's permission and assistance in the construction of a modest dirt access road to the antiquities site. But little can be done with the site itself while it remains under Israeli control.

"I think that logically, these places that are in the middle of Palestinian towns will eventually have to be under Palestinian control, simply because the Israelis have no control over them," Yahya said.

Yahya, a Muslim, dreams of a time when Jewish as well as Christian tourists will return. And he believes the broader Israeli and Palestinian community, locked in conflict over religion and heritage, could learn a valuable lesson from a closer look at the history of such sites.

"Look at the tower of Bethel for instance," he said. "Through centuries of rule, not only by the Jews, but by Greeks, Roman, Byzantines, and Muslims, the tradition of Jacob continued. People changed their religions, but they kept the tradition. They preserved the sites, and even their names.

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