NABLUS, West Bank, Oct. 11 (AP)--Israel fought to hold on to a holy site where many Jews believe a biblical figure is buried. Palestinians, determined to rid their town of an Israeli presence, drove the soldiers away.
Now the mayor of Nablus has called for international experts to determine who is really buried at the site: a Muslim sheik or Joseph, son of the biblical Jacob.
Mayor Ghassan Shakaa also said that the site, ransacked by Palestinians after the Israelis fled, would be repaired. Workers were fixing the damage Tuesday but were also painting the top of the dome green--the color of Islam.
That step is likely to anger Israelis, who were already enraged by television footage that showed Palestinian mobs hacking through the dome and burning Jewish prayer books after Israeli soldiers withdrew from the area last weekend.
The Jewish belief that Joseph was buried in the biblical town of Shekhem, near the present-day Palestinian city of Nablus, is based on a number of references in the Old Testament and the Talmud. But no one knows for certain that he lies buried in the place regarded by some as Joseph's Tomb, said Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, who heads a seminary in the town of Petah Tikvah near Tel Aviv.
Some archaeologists say the tomb is only a few centuries old and may be the resting place of a Muslim sheik. Others say they believe Joseph was buried at the site.
"Let's find out who this tomb really belongs to so we can reach a solution," said Shakaa.
"If it's Sheik Yousef, we will turn it into a Muslim shrine," he said. "If it's the Prophet Joseph, who we also believe in, then we have to talk about how we can resolve this, how we can organize visits by Jews under Palestinian control."
The tomb was partially destroyed after Israeli soldiers withdrew following a week of fighting that left six Palestinians and one Israeli dead. The site was home to a Jewish seminary and was also used as an Israeli army outpost. An American-born rabbi who taught at the seminary was found slain on Sunday outside of Nablus. Hillel Lieberman was buried on Wednesday.
But to Palestinians, the tomb and the isolated garrison of soldiers who guarded it were a constant reminder of the military occupation that they found intolerable.
"The people who demolished this place were very angry because a lot of people were killed around this place," said Nablus resident Ibrahim Dwekat. "The people here believe that this place is a military location for the Israelis and not a religious place."
The Israeli army is already contesting that assertion.
"Contrary to statements from the Palestinian Authority...the area of Joseph's tomb is a holy place for Jews," the army said.
Footage of Palestinians painting the dome of the tomb green was broadcast on Israeli television Tuesday, and the Israeli army warned in its statement that the Palestinians were laying the groundwork for turning "a Jewish holy place into a Muslim mosque."
Shakaa said the city simply wanted to return the building to the way it looked before it came into Israeli hands in the 1967 Mideast war.