Bethlehem – Ma’an – Thousands of Israelis, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, descended on the tomb of the Biblical matriarch Rachel in a militarized compound in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on Thursday.
Rachel’s Tomb lies behind Israel’s eight-meter concrete separation wall in a fortified enclave close to the center of Bethlehem. The wall criss-crosses Bethlehem, blocking the main road to Jerusalem, encircling a refugee camp and looming over the upscale Intercontinental hotel.
Right-wing religious groups petitioned Israel’s highest court in 2004 to re-route the wall to include the tomb on the western side. To this day the site, formerly known as the location of the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque, is accessible only from the Israeli side.
A Jewish mass-prayer service takes place at the tomb every year on the date believed to be the anniversary of Rachel’s death in childbirth.
This year an Israeli group calling itself the Kever Rachel (Rachel’s Tomb) organization put a political spin on the event, urging Israelis to pray for the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian fighters from Gaza in 2006. The Kever Rachel organization said it expected as many as 150,000 people to attend the event over the course of 24 hours.
Journalists covering the prayer rally were bused through police and military security cordons into the Rachel’s Tomb compound. One of the sponsors of the event was introduced on the bus, Robert Weiss, who was identified only as an “attorney and businessman from New York.”
Weiss told reporters that it was important to pray for Gilad Shalit because “on this day her [Rachel’s] powers are at their peak.”
Once inside the walled compound, Weiss did not directly answer questions about the political status of the site, which lies east of the Green Line, in what the international community agrees is Palestinian territory. “The politics of this particular site is not relevant,” he said in a brief interview.
Weiss, dressed in the traditional black hat and coat of the ultra-Orthodox, said “the fact that we are surrounded by walls doesn’t mean anything.” He added that he didn’t have any objection to Palestinians coming to the site, but viewed the wall as legitimate. “The walls are there because there’s a lot of hostility. We have to protect ourselves using weapons.”
Charlie Levine, a Jerusalem-based PR agent handling the media at the event also said, “There would be no security wall if it were not for the problem of terrorism.”
For the ultra-Orthodox faithful who prayed at the tomb on Thursday, the territorial issues are ultimately religious issues. “This land was promised to the Jews by God,” said one male worshiper. “Arabs should be allowed to live here but they have to recognize that the land belongs to the Jews.”
Others were seemingly perturbed by the setting. “It’s an enclave,” said one, “This is ridiculous.”
“Look at that building over there,” he said, pointing to a Palestinian apartment tower, “They can see us!”