holy fortresses; Patrick Cockburn on how Israel exploits its religious sites to undermine the Palestinians
THE MAN in the blue skullcap was not friendly. "Go away or I'll stick a knife in your mouth," he said, then spat on the ground. He was a Jewish seminary student, speaking from behind the barbed wire and concrete blocks protecting Joseph's Tomb, the Jewish holy site in the heart of the Palestinian city of Nablus.

His threats were worth taking seriously. Jewish settlers close to Nablus had recently opened fire on a party of journalists. Joseph's Tomb has seen some of the worst violence on the West Bank - in 1996 six Israeli soldiers were shot dead trying to defend it, and nearby buildings were gutted by fire.

Across the West Bank the Oslo peace accords, which were meant to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, have created a series of extra-territorial Jewish enclaves around holy sites in the centre of Palestinian cities. It did not seem an important decision at the time, but their independent status in the heart of autonomous Palestinian areas has done much to poison relations between Arabs and Jews.

It was in Hebron in 1994 that Baruch Goldstein, a reserve army captain from a nearby settlement, walked from the synagogue in the Tomb of the Patri- archs to the al-Ibrahimi mosque in the same building, to shoot dead 29 Muslim worshippers at prayer. The attack put an end to any burgeoning trust between Israeli and Palestinian.

But the Tomb of the Patriarchs is not the only holy site on the West Bank that has become a focus of hatred and violence. Joseph's Tomb and Rachel's Tomb, on the outskirts of Bethlehem, are the most famous, but there are several others. Just outside Hebron, for example, are the alleged burial sites of Nathan the Prophet and Gad the Visionary. In the Palestinian village of Awarta near Nablus, Israel may claim the right of access to the tombs of Itamar and the Seventy Elders.

Nor is the antiquity of these sites beyond doubt. Joseph's Tomb, believed to be a Muslim building of the 12th or 13th century, developed as a place of pilgrimage after the 1967 war. Dr Khalil Hathamneh, a specialist on such shrines at Bir Zeit University, says he knows at least four other sites which claim to be the burial place of Joseph.

The real problem, which the architects of Oslo did not foresee, is that the holy sites are a magnet for religious nationalists who believe the West Bank belongs to the Jews by God's command. They know they can negate Palestinian autonomy by demanding access to shrines in Palestinian areas, which can be guaranteed only through Israeli military protection.

Joseph's Tomb, originally a simple white domed building, is now heavily fortified and illuminated by searchlights. Inside, Israeli border guards bar entry to casual visitors. The only access is by a bus which runs from an Israeli military base outside Nablus. Palestinian police with sub-machine guns require written permission from their commander in Nablus before allowing anybody even to visit the outer gates of the Tomb.

The pedigree of Rachel's Tomb, flanked by a Muslim graveyard, is better established. Here, Genesis says, Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin "on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem". Restored in 1845 by Sir Moses Montefiore, the Jewish philanthropist, it has long been a favourite place for Jewish pilgrimage.

Three years ago the tomb was an elegant little two-room shrine, containing a sarcophagus under a cupola. These days it is impossible to see from the road, having disappeared behind a protective wall with a watch-tower. Inside there is a long stone hall, five or six times the size of the tomb itself. A military checkpoint partly blocks the road outside; soldiers stopped us photographing the tomb on the grounds that it is a military facility.

Even more than in Nablus, Rachel's Tomb has turned into a fortress whose existence dominates those living around it. When we visited, an Israeli soldier was lying on a stretcher in the middle of the road. Half a dozen soldiers in full combat gear were tending him. Others had taken up position behind low walls in front of shops and were peering down the sights of their rifles. Fifty yards away a group of young men in white T-shirts and khaki trousers were hurling bottles and rubbish at the soldiers from a garbage dump overlooking the road.

It turned out to be a military exercise - the "rioters" were Israeli soldiers in mufti - but things got out of hand when they began to hurl missiles in the vicinity of Palestinian shops, and their owners came out to protest. "They have no right to throw cans and bottles and then leave them lying around," complained Hatem Kutairi, who sells spare parts for cars. One of the soldiers, perhaps abashed by seeing that journalists were watching, said they would clear up.

The presence of Rachel's Tomb in their midst has turned the neighbouring streets into a commercial wasteland. "If there is an incident here, the Israelis stop all cars at the checkpoint from Jerusalem [and] we lose all our customers," said Mr Kutairi.

For the hard core of Jewish settlers the whole of Judea and Samaria - the West Bank - is a holy site. But the shrines, whatever their authenticity, are the focus of their faith, and - Wye Mills notwithstanding - places such as Rachel's Tomb will remain a series of political time bombs, waiting to explode under any new agreement.