Israelis Wounded in Ambush After Praying in Forbidden Zone

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Seven Israelis who snuck past Israeli checkpoints into an area under full Palestinian Authority control were wounded Friday when a Palestinian gunman opened fire on the group. The Israelis went there to pray at a holy site.

Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades of PA Chairman Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction both claimed responsibility for the early-morning attack.

The Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigades claimed the attack was in retaliation for an Israeli military operation in Rafiah in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, in which several Palestinians were killed.

The seven Israelis were among a group of 16 ultra-Orthodox religious Jews who went to pray at the tomb of the Biblical figure Joseph in the West Bank city of Nablus, which is under complete PA rule - off-limits to Israelis.

In the middle of the night, the group made its way to the tomb, which holds special significance for the Jewish people, and prayed there for an hour or two until about 4:30 a.m., the army said.

As the group left, a Palestinian militant was waiting for them. He opened fire on their vehicle, wounding seven, two very seriously. The group notified the Israeli army, which entered the area to rescue them. The Israelis involved were arrested for violating Israeli law.

Entrance to the area is "not only dangerous but also illegal," the army emphasized. "[It] endangers not only those who enter, but also Israeli security forces who must rescue them," the army said.

Recently, Israel gathered intelligence information indicating that terrorists were planning to attack Israelis who went to Joseph's Tomb to pray. The information was published in the media and passed along to rabbis who had been to the tomb previously.

Rabbi Weissfisch, organizer of the latest prayer expedition, justified taking the group there without Israeli army permission.

"It's possible to say that this was a painful blow, a very painful blow," Weissfisch said in a radio interview.

"But together with this, we think that our way is the best way. It's a pity...that the army and the government are not willing to listen to our complaints... to permit legal entry. The last legal entry we had was at the Succoth holiday [in October] and that was a long time ago," he said.

But the army's Rabbi Asher Cohen said that while these Jews think they are sanctifying the name of God by praying at the tomb, they are actually defiling it because they are endangering lives.

Both Joseph's Tomb in Nablus and the tomb of the Biblical matriarch Rachel at the edge of Bethlehem are under special dispensation, according to signed agreements between Israel and the PA, where they would remain under full Israeli sovereignty.

But Israeli troops withdrew from Joseph's tomb after days of heavy fighting, which killed an Israeli soldier, in October 2000.

In a bid to calm tensions, Israeli troops left the site temporarily under the protection of the PA police. But the site was immediately turned over to a Palestinian mob, which defaced the tomb and a Jewish religious school at the site. Within days it was transformed into a mosque.

\sb100\sa100 Since then, there has not been a permanent Israeli army presence at the tomb but on special occasions such as Jewish holidays, the army brings worshippers there in armored buses.

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