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May 25, 2023 10:57 am

Fact Check: Palestinians Are the Ones Who Block Access to Jewish Religious Sites

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avatar by Akiva Van Koningsveld


The Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

All too often, critics have charged the Jewish state with limiting Palestinians’ freedom of worship, specifically at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque. However, an honest examination of the facts and relevant international law reveals that the Palestinians are guilty of the very thing they accuse Israel of.

In this piece, we will examine some of the restrictions and threats facing Jewish worship at holy sites and archeological digs in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Temple Mount (Jerusalem)

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City is Judaism’s holiest site — a fact that is beyond dispute. According to oral tradition, as well as mystical sources, the Mount contains the Foundation Stone from where God created the world. The Midrash and Jerusalem Talmud furthermore state that Adam, the first man, was formed from the dust of the plateau. Then Cain, Abel and Noah brought offerings on the same mountain. In Genesis 22, the Jewish patriarch Abraham is commanded to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah, identified as another name for the site.

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Later, King David purchased the threshing floor from Araunah the Jebusite (II Samuel 24:24I Chronicles 21:22-30), in order to construct an altar. His son Solomon established the First Temple, the focal point of Jewish worship, around 950 BCE, with the Holy of Holies and its Ark of the Covenant placed on the Foundation Stone. Although the Temple is now in ruins, the religious status of Judaism’s holiest place never changed. The Jewish sage Maimonides (1138-1204), in his magnum opus Mishneh Torah, concludes that “a person must hold [the site] in awe, as one would regard it when it [the Temple] was standing.”

Nowadays, Jewish tours of the Temple Mount are subject to many constraints. The current state of affairs governing the compound goes back to 1967, when Israel captured eastern Jerusalem from Jordan. Days after the war, defense minister Moshe Dayan met with Islamic leaders in the city. Under informal agreements that are enforced to this day, non-Muslims are only allowed to visit the Temple Mount during certain hours of the day, walk along a narrow police-enforced path, and may not pray there. Furthermore, due to incessant Palestinian violence, Israel is often forced to close the Temple Mount for Jews during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Cave of the Patriarchs (Hebron)

After Jerusalem, Hebron is considered Judaism’s second-holiest city, being mentioned throughout the Hebrew Bible no less than 87 times. According to Jewish tradition, it is home to the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs — the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. Later, King David established Hebron as his first capital and reigned there for seven years, as described in the Book of Samuel.

Jewish mystical texts encourage the faithful to pray at the Cave of Machpelah, depicting it as an auspicious place to connect to God’s light and compassion, especially when the world is in need of mercy. However, for 700 years, foreign rulers forbade Jews from entering the site, which was converted into a mosque, and restricted them to praying on the seventh step leading up to the building. When IDF chief rabbi Shlomo Goren single-handedly liberated Hebron on June 8, 1967, the ban was finally lifted — but some restrictions remain to this day.

Under agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), the Muslim Waqf controls about 81 percent of the building, and Jews are only allowed to enter its largest area — the Hall of Isaac and Rebecca — on some Jewish holidays, which amount to just ten days a year. Crucially, Ohel Yitzchak contains the entrance to the patriarch and matriarch’s ancient burial cave, sometimes called the “entrance to the Garden of Eden.” Additionally, during Muslim holidays, Jews are banned from the Cave of the Patriarchs altogether.

Joshua’s Altar (Mount Ebal)

In the years after the Jewish state captured the West Bank of the Jordan River (also known by its biblical name, Judea and Samaria) in the 1967 Six-Day War, Israeli researchers located more than 1,500 archeological sites, offering a unique peek into ancient Jewish civilization. Among other discoveries in northern Samaria, Haifa University professor Adam Zertal identified what some believe was the stone altar from Joshua 8:30-35.

Located on Mount Ebal near Nablus, in keeping with the instructions found in Deuteronomy 27, the structure’s dimensions fit descriptions in the Mishna and Talmud with remarkable accuracy. Notably, pottery found at the site, as well as radiocarbon analysis, reinforce the claim that the altar was constructed more than 3,200 years ago, around the same time as the Israelites’ conquest of the promised land. “If this corroborates exactly what is written in that very old part of the Bible,” Zertal once declared, “it means that probably other parts are historically correct. The impact is tremendous.”

Yet for Jews, visiting Joshua’s Altar is no easy feat — and can sometimes be dangerous. Mt. Ebal is situated in the West Bank’s Area B, where the Palestinian Authority controls administrative affairs, and accordingly, visitors require an escort from the Israeli military. The Palestinians, in an organized campaign to erase Jewish history in the Land of Israel, have also done tremendous damage to the site. For example, in 2021, Palestinian Authority workers ground ancient stones from the altar’s exterior wall into gravel to pave a road. Earlier this year, the PA announced a residential building project at the site, in a clear breach of its obligation under international law to “protect and safeguard all archaeological sites.”

Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue & Na’aran Synagogue (Jericho)

One of the oldest still-inhabited cities in the region, Jericho is perhaps best known from the Book of Joshua. According to the Bible, the heavily fortified “city of palm trees” was the first town in the Land of Israel that the Jewish people conquered after crossing the Jordan River. Sadly, the Roman army destroyed Jericho in the year 68 CE, and scholars believe the Jewish community only returned in the sixth or seventh century.

The Shalom Al Yisrael (“peace upon Israel”) and Na’aran synagogues, located in the greater Jericho area, likely date back to the Byzantine period (313-636). In keeping with the style of the era, both sites feature beautiful mosaics, depicting menorahs and other Jewish symbols. The former synagogue is especially significant in Jewish tradition, as it is believed to have been built in the place where an angel told Joshua: “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” (Joshua 5:15)

Its spiritual significance notwithstanding, Jericho was the first city in the West Bank to be handed over to the Palestinian Authority in 1994-95, under the promise that the newly-created PA security forces would allow Jewish pilgrims to safely visit the two synagogues.

Moreover, as part of the Oslo Accords, it was agreed that “religious affairs in the ‘Shalom Al Israel’ synagogue” in Jericho shall be under the auspices of the Israeli authorities. However, the PA’s compliance with the agreements has been spotty at best. In one incident on October 12, 2000, Palestinian police failed to act, as Arab rioters sacked and burned the Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue. Jewish worshipers only returned to Jericho in 2009. This year, amid increasing Palestinian attacks, the Israeli army again greatly reduced visits.

Gaza Synagogue (Gaza City)

While the Gaza Strip has been under full control of the Palestinian Hamas terror group since 2007, the coastal enclave has a rich Jewish history, dating back to biblical times and continuing well into the 20th century. Case in point: In his 1481 travel journal, Rabbi Meshullam da Volterra, an Italian pilgrim, counted some 50 to 60 Jewish families in the area. “They have a small but pretty synagogue, and vineyards and fields and houses,” he noted, adding that the Jews live “at the top of the hill.”

Sadly, the historic community was forced to flee to safety in the wake of the violent Arab riots of 1929, and Gaza’s 1,500-year-old house of worship was soon after reduced to rubble by local Muslims. It was only rediscovered shortly before the 1967 Six-Day War, when Egyptian authorities uncovered a mosaic depicting King David during construction work near the city’s port. Christian religious officials initially claimed they found remains of a fifth-century church, but following Israel’s capture of the territory, archeologists confirmed they had, in fact, located the ancient synagogue.

Annex II of the Gaza-Jericho Agreement of 1994 states that “the Palestinian Authority shall ensure free access to all holy sites in the Gaza Strip and the Jericho Area determined by the respective religious sects.”

Furthermore, in the Oslo II Interim Agreement signed a year later, the Palestinians agreed to “ensure free access to, and respect the ways of worship in… the Synagogue in Gaza City.” Yet since Israel’s 2005 withdrawal and Hamas’ subsequent takeover, archeological work at the site has come to a halt, as Jews have been prevented from accessing the Strip altogether. Part of the synagogue’s mosaic floor has been put on display at the Museum of the Good Samaritan near Jerusalem.

The author is a contributor to HonestReporting, a Jerusalem-based media watchdog with a focus on antisemitism and anti-Israel bias — where a version of this article first appeared.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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