The Palestinians are trying to threaten Israel’s hold on Rachel’s Tomb by throwing pipe bombs & stones, as well as by fabricating a new history for the site by interjecting the identity of Bilal Ibn Rabah. And again, just as was done with Jerusalem, UNESCO is on their team solidifying their falsehoods into a reality.
By Nadav Shragai
As the argument over the muezzin bill in Israel heats up, security forces in the Bethlehem region and the outskirts of the Gilo neighborhood in Jerusalem seem bothered by one muezzin in particular: Bilal Ibn Rabah, an Ethiopian-Abyssinian who is recognized in Islamic tradition as a slave who served in the home of the Prophet Muhammad as the first muezzin to ever beckon believers for prayer five times a day.
He was an important figure but in recent months, his image ceased to be exclusively one associated with religious history and has now been adopted as a symbol of the Palestinian struggle that has begun to develop around Rachel’s Tomb. The Palestinians now recognize and call the site, which is a holy place in the Jewish faith, “Bilal Ibn Rabah mosque,” and efforts to damage the site and the large crowds that visit it regularly have intensified under this pretext.
The anniversary of Rachel’s death, the 11th day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, has brought more than 50,000 visitors to Rachel’s Tomb, which has been under siege for many months by attackers hurling homemade explosives, firebombs and stones at the site, damaging the walls that have surrounded the complex for more than two decades.
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While it may be the sounds of the muezzin in Beit Safafa, on the city’s northeastern border, that wakes the residents of Jerusalem’s Gilo neighborhood up early in the morning, it’s on their southwestern border with Bethlehem that a much more tangible threat plagues security forces. This issue also involves a muezzin, but one who has been dead for more than 1,350 years. The scores of visitors to the site this week and witnesses to the unprecedented security measures in the area had not heard his name, but at least as far as radical Islam is concerned, Ibn Rabah is currently fueling the repeated efforts to harm the Jewish visitors to Rachel’s Tomb.
When the Prophet Muhammad died, Ibn Rabah went to fight the wars of Islam in Syria. He was killed in 642 C.E. and buried in Aleppo or Damascus, according to different versions of the story. On the eve of the Second Intifada in 2000, the Islamic Waqf in Bethlehem and the Palestinian Authority began to link Ibn Rabah’s image and the area of Rachel’s Tomb, which until then had been considered a place of Jewish worship known as Kubat Rahel or the Dome of Rachel.
In 2011, under pressure from the Palestinians and Arab states, UNESCO first recognized Rachel’s Tomb as Bilal Ibn Rabah mosque. After UNESCO’s decision regarding Rachel’s Tomb, it was only a small hop to the nearly official Islamization of the site by the Palestinian media and public opinion.
If, prior to that, the daily newspaper of the Palestinian Authority “Al Hayat al Jadida” was satisfied with claiming that Rachel’s Tomb “is false” and that “originally, it was a Muslim mosque called Bilal Ibn Rabah,” radical Islam is no longer satisfied with simple semantics or the distortion of history and scientific research. In recent months, 21 suspects have been arrested on charges of throwing firecracker, homemade bombs and firebombs at Rachel’s Tomb. Sixteen of them were minors, residents of the area adjacent to Rachel’s Tomb, mostly of the Al Aida refugee camp.
These youths learned their bomb-making skills online. Their favorite time to attack was Friday afternoons, after prayer at the mosque had let out, when Rachel’s Tomb was flooded with Jewish visitors. This is not the first group that has tried to wreak havoc on the site. In July, five Palestinians were arrested for throwing makeshift explosives at the compound surrounding the site. They, too, were from the Al Aida refugee camp, and they too, learned their trade online. Bethlehem in general and the Al Aida refugee camp in particular have become a hornet’s nest for everything related to the import of terrorism into Israel and, more specifically, Jerusalem.
The IDF is trying to handle the issue of the Al Aida refugee camp in a variety of ways, ranging from dialogue with their dignitaries to using undercover agents and commandos from the Duvdevan elite counterterrorism unit.
The only thing preventing the Jewish visitors from seeing harm when they come to the tomb is the high walls and fortifications that surround the area. However, the blasts and flames from the firebombs that manage to make it past the fortifications and explode next to the guard posts can be quite unnerving.
The harassment continues
Ibn Rabah has been the excuse for the repeated attacks on the tomb, which Muslims now claim is a mosque. The Muslim narrative regarding the site’s evolution, which has won support from UNESCO, illustrates the process by which history is twisted and bent for current political Palestinian agendas. Here is a brief history.
Rachel’s Tomb, located on the northern outskirts of Bethlehem, just over 1,500 feet from the southern border of the municipal limits of Jerusalem, has been known for more than 1,700 years as a Jewish shrine; the final resting place of the spiritual matriarch. Muslims also bear a link to the site, but it stems directly from Rachel’s identity and is unrelated to Ibn Rabah.
Official publications from the Palestinian national bodies currently refer to the site as “Bilal Ibn Rabah mosque,” though there was no mention of the name before just a few years ago. This same is true in the Guide to a Palestinian Lexicon which was published by the Arab League and the PLO in 1984. This was true in the book “Palestine — the Holy Land,” in which it is plainly written that at the northern entrance of the city is the entrance to Rachel’s Tomb, who died giving life to Benjamin.
The new tale of Islam as supported by UNESCO, which relates to Rachel’s Tomb, is somewhat like the Islamization of the Western Wall, which has been an issue since the 1929 Arab riots in British Palestine and continues to be an issue today.
At , the Muslims pointed to the fact that in a room adjacent to the tomb, which has since been destroyed, there used to be a mihrab — a niche that indicated the direction of Muslim prayer toward Mecca. They are right, but only partially. Here is the full truth: On three sides of the tomb is a Muslim cemetery. Most of it belongs to the Bedouin tribe known as the Tamra, which began burying their dead there in the 18th century.
The proximity of the cemetery to the tomb resulted in significant friction in previous generations between the Jews and the Arabs when the latter asked to purify their dead in area of the tomb. Numerous historical sources report that the Tamra and the Arabs in the area harassed Jews in previous centuries who asked to visit the tomb, and even regularly took ransoms and protection money as a condition for visiting the site — some of the residents of the neighborhoods in the Mughrabi Quarter, which was adjacent to the Western Wall did the same to Jews who asked to go pray there.
Against the backdrop of the incessant harassment by Muslims of the Jews who came to visit the tomb, Moses Montefiore got a license and a permit from the Turks to build an additional room at Rachel’s Tomb. The room was built in 1841, and a mihrab was also installed. The objective was to make it so that the Muslims would no longer enter the tomb itself and therefore stop harassing the Jews. Even before that, Secretary of the Sephardic Council in Jerusalem Avraham Bachar Avraham was able to obtain two decrees from the Ottoman authorities that recognize the rights of Jews in the area and order that they not be disrupted when praying there.
Despite this, the harassment continued. Ultimately, they paid high sums to Muslims to convince the Muslims to purify their dead outside of the two rooms of the tomb, and let the Jews pray and visit the Tombs without interruption. The twisted manner with which the origin story of the Muslim prayer room unfolded helped the Palestinians to turn the site into a “mosque.”
A flexible path
The complex that surrounds Rachel’s Tomb, an enclave enclosed by walls and fortifications located on the outskirts of Bethlehem has, this week, with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, brought about an interesting possibility. It is time for Habayit Hayehudi party, and MK Uri Ariel in particular, to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex the tomb and the few hundred yards between it and the city of Jerusalem.
This would be a symbolic annexation, as de facto, the place has been connected to Jerusalem by a walled corridor of high concrete walls since 1995, just before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Trump’s election, of course, has filled the Right with hopes, just one of which is the de jure annexation of Rachel’s Tomb.
The political history of Rachel’s Tomb is paved with turmoil. Rabin, whose assassination 21 years ago took place on the eve of Rachel’s death, had already agreed to give the area to the Palestinians just a few months prior, as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords. It was only of pleas by MKs Menachem Porush and Hanan Porat, who have since died themselves, and pressure from then-Chief Rabbi Meir Lau, then-Attorney General Elyakim Rubinstein and then-Minister of Religious Affairs Shimon Sheetrit, that convinced Rabin to change his mind.
Later, Shimon Peres convinced Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat to receive an alternative area in Abu Dis. In return, the corridor to Rachel’s Tomb went back to being Area C, meaning under full Israeli control, instead of Area A, which is under full Palestinian control, and Jews went back to visiting it in greater and increasing numbers.
But seven years after the tomb went back to being “Israeli,” again a question mark appeared regarding its status when IDF officers, who sketched the area surrounding Jerusalem, asked to leave the tomb outside the fence. Their request was related to security considerations. This time, the decision to leave Rachel’s Tomb inside Israel was made by Ehud Olmert, who was serving at the time as mayor of Jerusalem.
The initial assessment was that the “transfer of the fence south of Rachel’s tomb is not physically feasible” and that the relatively densely populated residential Palestinian in the area around Rachel’s Tomb would not allow for the construction of an effective barrier thereby likely endangering the lives of the soldiers guarding it.
Olmert discussed the issue with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who convened the government and once again changed the path but left Rachel’s tomb on the Israeli side of the fence. The decision was made contrary to the opinion of then-Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer.
Ben-Eliezer was opposed to the plan and suggested the construction of an elevated bridge that would traverse the 500 meters (1,640 feet) and carry the visitors into the tomb above houses of Bethlehem residents who live between the municipal limit of Jerusalem and the site, but his suggestion was rejected. Sharon ruled, “The Tomb is part of the State of Israel. It is dear to the Jewish nation and there is no way that Israelis won’t have free access to it.”
False Christian hope
Despite Sharon’s staunch words during the cabinet meeting when it was decided that Rachel’s tomb would, at least formally, remain part of Israel, this is still not the case today. However, it does reside in Area C and Palestinians do not have access to it. Perhaps only in the future will we see a political climate that will allow for the annexation of the 400 meters that separate it from Jerusalem.
The plan for Rachel’s Tomb annexation to Jerusalem has been mentioned in the same breath as other stalled plans, which can allegedly be revisited with Trump’s election. In the list prepared by the Right, there are plans for construction in Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Har Homa, Gilo, Ramot, or Ramat Shlomo as well as construction in its suburbs of Maaleh Adumim and Givat Zeev and the end of the moratorium placed on Jewish construction in the E1 area that connects between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim.
And here’s another historical discovery: during the weeks that preceded the Israeli withdrawal from Bethlehem, as part of the Oslo Accords, an effort was made to roll the wheels back and prevent the move. Sheetrit met with Rabin and told him of the mood among Christians in Bethlehem and their fear of the Palestinian Authority’s rule. Even then-Bethlehem Mayor Elias Faraj called Rabin from his deathbed and spoke with him on the matter. After consulting with Rabin, Sheetrit sent a representative to Turkey and tried to negotiate with senior Christian clerics. He verified the possibility of posting a notice on their behalf that would call for Israel to remain in Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. During these talks, the Christian clergy expressed their desire that Israel remain in Bethlehem, but they were not prepared to make a public statement on the issue.
Israel withdrew from Bethlehem and Rachel’s Tomb remained in Israeli hands, but only after a series of upheavals. Now the Palestinians are trying to threaten Israel’s hold on the area using pipe bombs and stones, as well as by constructing a new history for the site by using the identity of Bilal Ibn Rabah. And again, UNESCO is on their team trying to make their falsehoods a reality.
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