The “Joseph’s Tomb” compound is situated on the eastern outskirts of Nablus, close to Balata Refugee Camp. In an unusual step, the Interim Accords (“Oslo Agreement”) established that the compound would constitute an Israeli enclave inside Area A. Once every two weeks (and sometimes as often as twice a week, during the Jewish High Holiday season), the Israeli Army accompanies night-time visits to the compound attended by hundreds of Jewish worshippers. During the visits, the military imposes sweeping restrictions on the freedom of movement of Palestinian residents in the area, who become prisoners in their own homes. During the visits, youths from Balata Refugee Camp throw stones at the worshippers and the security forces. The soldiers respond by firing tear gas, which spreads into local homes. In some cases, live fire is used. Youths have been injured during these clashes.
The visits make the lives of local residents a misery. The fact that they take place at night disrupts the residents’ sleep, due to the noise caused by the worshippers and the confrontations. Each such visit raises anxiety among the residents – including families with young children, elderly people, and the sick – who are forced to close themselves in their homes.
During the period August-October 2017, B'Tselem documented several visits to the tomb compound, each involving hundreds of worshippers. Dozens of soldiers accompanied the visits, shutting down the area and restriction the movement of residents inside the camp. B'Tselem field researcher Salma a-Deb’i collected testimonies from residents in the area, as detailed below.
For many years, Israel has preferred the interests of Jewish worshippers to the rights of the Palestinian residents, including their right to security, wellbeing, and their daily routine. This order of priorities is not unique to “Joseph’s Tomb.” For fifty years, Israel has maintained a violent daily routine in the Territories. All the Israeli authorities act above the heads of the Palestinian residents, who are completely excluded from decision-making processes relating to their lives. The combination of the lack of political representation for Palestinians and the imposition of an Israeli law enforcement system that consistently prevents action against those who harm Palestinians means that there are virtually no limits on physical or administrative violence, and allows all aspects of their lives to be harmed. In some cases, Palestinian rights are violated without any justification, while in others flimsy security justifications are employed. In all cases, however, the violations are grounded in the overt preference for Israeli needs and interests. This is true throughout the Territories, and it is true in the reality imposed on the residents of Balata Refugee Camp. As the testimonies explain, this reality is dominated by constant uncertainty regarding the present and the future, the violation of privacy, and the potential disruption of personal life at any moment.
‘Amer Saqer, 38, a bakery owner and resident of ‘Askar Refugee Camp to the east of Nablus, described the impact of the frequent entry of soldiers to the camp on his work:
I live with my family in ‘Askar Refugee Camp, and every day I walk to my bakery, which is situated on the road connecting Balata Refugee Camp to Nablus and the villages to the east. My workers and I usually arrive at the bakery at three o’clock in the morning and start work straight away. But in recent years we have suffered from the visits by settlers to Jacob’s Tomb once every two weeks, accompanied by soldiers. When they arrive, they deploy everywhere and we can’t get to work on time. They don’t let anyone through. We have to stay at home until the soldiers leave, or search for alternative routes to the bakery. Even if we manage to get here we can’t open the bakery, because it’s close to the center of the events. When I open the bakery after the clashes have ended, it’s full of tear gas and I have to open the doors and wait for it to disperse so that we can work. The delay in opening the bakery leads to delays in preparing the dough, so that residents get their bread late and look elsewhere. I end up with unsold bread and have to sell some of it at a loss and give the remainder to the poor.
Nur Dweikat, 58, married and mother of five, lives about 50 meters from the northern entrance to Balata Refugee Camp. In testimony taken by B'Tselem on 12 September 2017, she stated:
On 28 August 2017, at about 11:50 PM, I heard a commotion outside my home. My son had told me earlier that the settlers were planning to enter Joseph’s Tomb in order to pray there. Before the settlers come, the soldiers usually disperse through the area around the tomb and the whole area to the east, and about two hours later the settlers arrive.
What bothers me are the sounds of shooting, stun grenades, and tear gas. The gas smell and burning sensation in the are terrible and I’m scared that someone will choke because of it, so I close all the windows at home and turn the air-conditioner on as soon as I hear that the soldiers are coming. In the past, before social media, we didn’t know in advance that the army was coming, but today we learn of this through the social media and we can prepare. We make sure to get home early and not to dawdle outside, and to let our guests know about it. A few times in the past, we had guests and had to smuggle them out by roundabout routes. When my grandchildren want to come to sleep over, I tell them that they’re welcome on any day, but not when the settlers come.
Rima Dweikat, 47, married and mother of four, is a resident of Balata Refugee Camp. In testimony taken on 12 September 2017, she stated:
On 28 August 2017, at around midnight, I heard a lot of noise from the street and assumed that the soldiers had arrived. I realized that we wouldn’t be able to go to sleep. I can’t get to sleep when they come, because of the noise they make as they walk outside our home, their shooting, and the tear gas and stun grenades they throw. Sometimes the children come into my room and say, ‘Mom, the soldiers are on the steps in front of our home.’ They stay in bed with me because they’re scared. I’m worried that the soldiers will bang on our door and scare my children, whose room is right by the entrance to our home. When the soldiers arrive, the children and I usually stay awake and don’t manage to go to sleep until they leave the area. They usually stay until the early morning, and only then I fall asleep.
When I wake up in the morning and open the windows, the air outside is still saturated with tear gas. Sometimes the gas canisters fall in our garden, and although we close the windows the smell still gets in and bothers us.
As soon as the youths in the camp see the soldiers, they start throwing stones at them, and then clashes break out all over the place. There’s no way that the presence of soldiers will pass without resistance from the youths. The youths also burn tires, which bothers us a lot, and we’re afraid that someone will get hurt. We feel like hostages inside our own home and we don’t know how the night will end. This suffering has gone on for years already. The soldiers come to protect the settlers, and we have to close ourselves off in our home as if it was a prison. It’s totally unjust.
Samer ‘Amira, 43. married and mother of five, works at the Coordination Center in Balata Refugee Camp and works on the eastern edge of the camp. In testimony taken on 28 September 2017, she stated:
On 28 September 2017, at about 1:00 AM, a noise awoke me and I immediately knew that there were soldiers in the neighborhood. I got up straight away and closed the windows in all the rooms so that tear gas wouldn’t come in. I hear shots, and then all my children, aged eight through 17, woke up. My sons, ages 16 and 13, went to the windows and wanted to open them so that they could see what was happening outside, but I shouted at them to go back to bed.
Every time the soldiers enter the camp to protect the settlers, it all starts over again: clashes break out and I get scared and nervous. I’m a mother and I’m not worried for myself, but for my children. The older children want to go out and join the confrontations. My little girls Sireen and Lian, shake with fear and can’t get to sleep. They are afraid that the soldiers will come into our home or that someone from our family will get hurt. I find myself torn between the older children and the little ones, and I don’t know what to do. I stay awake all the time, following what’s happening and watching my children. I only calm down when everyone goes to sleep. Only then I can be sure that they won’t go out onto the street or stand by the windows, exposed to shooting by the soldiers.
At about 5:30 AM I saw on Facebook that the soldiers had left the camp. I woke up my little children so that they could go to school. The smell of gas was everywhere. The children went off to school and I went to work at the Coordination Center in the camp. I spent the whole day just looking at my watch waiting for my shift to end so that I could go home to sleep.
On Wednesday, 1 November 2017, soldiers entered the camp around midnight and clashes erupted with local youths. Firiyal Dweikat, a widow aged 53, lives on her own in a house in Nablus about 100 meters from Joseph’s Tomb. At about 4:00 AM Dweikat woke up to the sound of breaking glass tear gas filling her home.
In testimony taken on 1 November 2017, Firiyal Dweikat stated:
Just after midnight I was in the kitchen making myself a cup of chamomile tea. I heard a noise on the street, and when I looked out of the window I saw a few young men on the road, and Palestinian police officers driving past in a patrol vehicle. I realized that the settlers were going to be coming. The Palestinian police officers usually leave just before the military arrives. They come first and then the settlers come to pray at Joseph’s Tomb.
I thought to myself that I wouldn’t be getting any sleep that night, because of the noise of the settlers and the youths from the camp, the shooting, and the smell and burningof tear gas. At about 3:15 AM the settlers turned off the lights they bring with them to light up the streets. I calmed down and got ready to go to bed. I fell asleep, but only for a very short time. At 4:00 AM I woke up to the sound of breaking glass. I lifted my head up but I couldn’t see anything – the whole house was full of smoke. I choked and thought that my home was going up in flames. I just managed to put clothes on, opened my door, and began to shout for help. I called my nephew Ramzi, who lives nearby, and asked him and his wife to come to help me because they’re close by. Straight after that I collapsed and fell to the ground. I barely managed to get back up again. I tried to walk but fell over again. In the meantime Ramzi and his wife Ghada had arrived, and they helped me get up.
Ghada Dweikat, 41, married and mother of five, described what happened when she reached Firiyal’s home:
I didn’t know what to do. There was a smell of tear gas in the whole area. My eyes were watering constantly and I was coughing because of the tear gas. I quickly went out toward the main road. I saw a Palestinian police patrol vehicle that was arriving after the army and settlers had left. I asked them to help and they told me that they had already called for an ambulance. Maybe they heard Firiyal shouting and realized that she’d been injured by the gas, because there was a smell of gas everywhere.
A little later the ambulance and fire brigade arrived. In the meantime I tried to help Firiyal with onion and water, but she was in a bad condition. When the ambulance arrived, the crew took her in and connected her to oxygen. They wanted to take her to hospital but she refused. She was afraid that her home was going to burn down. But later we realized that the smoke was from a gas canister that came into the living room through the window. I saw another gas canister by the entrance to the house.
After Firiyal’s condition improved a bit, the ambulance left the scene. We stayed with her on the street, by the entrance to her home. No-one was able to go inside until 6:00 AM. In the morning we went in to inspect the house. Firiyal, who has suffered from high blood pressure for several years, took her medicines. Even after two hours there was still a smell of tear gas in the house.