Israel Foils Terror Attack on Joseph's Tomb

Israel soldier Joseph's Tomb
An Israeli soldier prays inside Joseph's Tomb in the West Bank city of Nablus early July 4, 2011. Israeli security forces claim to have foiled a terror attack on the biblical site. Nir Elias/Reuters

A terror attack by Islamist militants in Palestine on the tomb of a biblical prophet has been foiled by Israeli security services, according to officials.

In an email statement, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said that four Palestinian members of a terror cell had been arrested. The IDF, which carried out the arrests in conjunction with Shin Bet—Israel's internal security force—said the militants were planning to plant improvised explosive devices and fire at Jewish worshippers visiting the holy site of Joseph's Tomb in the West Bank city of Nablus.

It is not clear when the arrests took place, as a gag order about them was only lifted on Tuesday. The IDF claimed that the four were under the instruction of Rafat Mohamed Darwish, a leading figure in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement based in the Gaza Strip. One of the militants is allegedly a known member of Islamic Jihad, while another is a member of Hamas and another a Palestinian police officer.

The case has been transferred to the military court in Samaria. "The investigation revealed the clear and continued intent of operatives in the Gaza Strip to recruit terrorists as well as direct and lead terror activities in the Judea and Samaria Region," the IDF said.

Tensions between Israel and Islamic Jihad, which is backed by Iran, escalated last week after Israel blamed the group for four rocket attacks launched on Thursday from the Syrian side of the Israeli-Syrian border, which an Islamic Jihad spokesperson denied. The IDF carried out its own airstrikes in Syria on Friday which it said were targeting the cell responsible for the rocket fire, prompting threats of retaliation from Islamic Jihad.

Islamic Jihad are also campaigning for the release of Mohammed Allan, a Palestinian prisoner who underwent a 65-day hunger strike against being held without trial. Allan is accused of being a member of Islamic Jihad by Israeli authorities. According to AFP, Allan ended his hunger strike on Thursday after twice falling into a coma but is ready to resume it if he is again placed under administrative detentiona security measure which allows for interment for six months without trial.

Benjamin Decker, a senior intelligence analyst at Israel-based security consultancy the Levantine Group, says that the foiled attack was likely an attempt to retaliate for the continued detention of Allan. He says the outcome of the prisoner's detention could spark further attempted attacks from Islamic Jihad. "Mohammed Allan's current hunger strike is the biggest question mark at this point," says Decker. "If something were to happen to him, it would not be surprising if there were additional attempts to catalyse a wave of violence in the West Bank."

Joseph's Tomb, which is traditionally believed to be the burial site of the biblical prophet Joseph, is a delicate location in terms of Israeli-Palestinian relations. Jewish pilgrims are only permitted to visit the site once per month in heavily-guarded trips, which require significant coordination between the IDF and the Palestinian Authority (PA), under whose jurisdiction the site falls. Four years ago, a relative of an Israeli cabinet minister was shot dead by a Palestinian policeman after attempting to enter the tomb outside of the prescribed visits. Decker says that, if successful, an attack on Joseph's Tomb would "seriously destabilize the Palestinian Authority's hold on the West Bank" and raise "tensions and accusations that the PA could hypothetically have had a hand in it [an attack]."