Joseph's Tomb is reduced to rubble as troops pull out

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The Independent Online

Conflict in the Middle East slid towards still-bloodier turmoil yesterday after Israel withdrew its troops from a besieged shrine in Nablus, only for it to be torn down and burnt by a crowd of jubilant Palestinians using crowbars, pickaxes and their bare hands.

Conflict in the Middle East slid towards still-bloodier turmoil yesterday after Israel withdrew its troops from a besieged shrine in Nablus, only for it to be torn down and burnt by a crowd of jubilant Palestinians using crowbars, pickaxes and their bare hands.

As news of the destruction of Joseph's Tomb spread, a stand-off began between Israeli troops and enraged Jewish religious settlers, armed with automatic weapons, whom the soldiers were holding back on the edge of the town, where they gathered after seeing the huge plume of black smoke.

The site was reduced to smouldering rubble - festooned with Palestinian and Islamic flags - by a cheering Arab crowd within hours after Ehud Barak, Israel's prime minister, staged a pre-dawn pull-out, evacuating six soldiers who had been defending it for more than a week, aided by rockets from helicopter gunships and hilltop snipers.

The withdrawal was agreed with the Palestinian authorities, whose armed police escorted the soldiers out of the Arab city, and was an attempt to cool off a conflict that has claimed more than 80 lives in just over a week. But it was on condition that the Palestinian security forces protect the shrine. The fact that they failed to do so caused outrage in Israel, and will increase pressure on Mr Barak to crush the current up-rising with even more military force. The site - in the heart of Palestinian-controlled city - is a classic example of the tortured historical disputes entwined in the PalestinianIsraeli conflict. It is revered by a small group of Zionist zealots, who are convinced that it is the tomb of the Old Testament patriarch dating back 3,000 years - a claim scoffed at by most archaeologists.

Muslims insist that it was the tomb of an Islamic cleric 200 years ago, although that did not deter the crowds yesterday from destroying what had become a hated Israeli outpost, a symbol of occupation, and - in the last week - a killing ground on which six Palestinians were killed and one Israeli border guard - a Druze - bled to death, after his commanders concluded as too dangerous him out.

"We have achieved the impossible with our hands and our souls," said Hisham, 18, as he stood in the midst of the shrine's smoking ruins, while a youth with a pickaxe smashed a hole in its small domed roof and a pick-up lorry tore down the walls using a chain. "They used this place, in the heart of our city. We must make sure that the Jews never come back."

There were noisy celebrations in the streets of Nablus where the withdrawal was hailed as a Palestinian military victory - a rare event - in which Kalashnikovs and molotov cocktails had ousted the Israelis, something that seven years of peace negotiations did not achieve.

Israel said the withdrawal was temporary. However, it would now be impossible for them to re-take the shrine without triggering another furious battle, with certain loss of life. But there was widespread anger over Yasser Arafat's failure to protect the place - a factor that will now deepen Ehud Barak's political isolation. "The whole operation was based on co-operation," said a senior Israeli military commander. "If they cannot co-operate, we will have to find another way."

As hundreds of youths wrecked and looted of the site, Colonel Firas al-Amleh, a senior Palestinian police officer stood on an ammunition box nearby wand watched the scene disapprovingly. He said its destruction was "uncivilised" and claimed he was trying to persuade the crowds to stop - although there was no obvious sign of that.

Joseph's Tomb has been one of the biggest battlegrounds of the last 10 days - and perhaps the most breathtakingly pointless. Unusually, the latter was in part acknowledged yesterday by a senior Israeli politician, the deputy defence minister Ephraim Sneh.

"The question is, what interest did we ever have there?" he said. "There was never a political or military or settlement justification to stay in Joseph's Tomb. Over the years, the army has protected a small, marginal group that wanted to use this site as a foothold for settlement in Nablus, that is the honest truth."

On the edge of Nablus, bearded members of that marginal Jewish group looked on in fury, held back by Israeli troops, and began stoning Palestinian cars.

"We are feeling real pain," said Ben Galant, as he watched the smoke rising in the distance, surrounded by a clutch of other, furious, gun-toting settlers.

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