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Myth and Fact: Protecting Jewish Holy Sites
Mitchell G. Bard

Myth

“The Palestinian Authority protects Jewish holy sites.”

Fact

Less than 24 hours after the last IDF soldier withdrew from the Gaza Strip, Palestinian Authority (PA) bulldozers began to raze synagogues that were left behind by Jewish residents. Thousands of Palestinians also stormed the former Gaza settlements and set fire to several synagogues and yeshivot while PA security forces stood and watched. Several Palestinians belonging to terrorist groups climbed the roofs of synagogues and placed green flags on top while other members inside set fire to the buildings and looted items that the Jews left behind (Jerusalem Post, September 12, 2005).

The desecration of these Jewish holy places in Gaza came after Israel decided not dismantle the synagogues there. Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz stated, “It would be a historic Jewish mistake to destroy the synagogues” (Jerusalem Post, September 12, 2005).

The decision to keep the 19 synagogues and yeshivot in Gaza and the evacuated northern Samaria settlements standing passed in the cabinet by a vote of 14-2. United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan was told by Israel that since the disengagement plan was implemented, the “PA now had the moral responsibility to protect the synagogues as places with religious significance” (Jerusalem Post, September 12, 2005). Earlier in the week, Ministry of Defense workers placed signs that read “Holy Place” in Arabic and English on synagogue walls throughout Gaza so the Palestinians would know not to destroy them (Ha’aretz, September 12, 2005).

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas defended the razing of Gaza synagogues by claiming, “There are no synagogues here.” Abbas said the buildings that were formally synagogues were now emptied and in danger of collapsing, and must be demolished to build homes for thousands of Palestinians. The PA maintained that the synagogues were symbols of Israeli occupation, and boycotted the ceremony marking the handover of Gaza to the Palestinians in protest of Israel's decision to leave the synagogues intact (Jerusalem Post, September 12, 2005).

This was not the first instance when the PA has failed to protect Jewish holy places:

  • In Septemer 1996, Palestinian rioters destroyed a synagogue at Joseph's Tomb in Nablus.
  • Rachel's Tomb near Bethlehem has been repeatedly attacked since 1996.
  • In October 2000, Joseph's Tomb was torched after the Israeli garrison guarding it was temporarily withdrawn. It was subsequently rebuilt as a mosque.
  • Also in October 2000, the ancient synagogue in Jericho was destroyed by arson and a second historic synagogue was damaged.

PA textbooks continue to teach young Palestinians that Jews have no connection to the Land of Israel and to disparage Judaism, so it should not be surprising that Jewish institutions are not shown respect. This is one reason why Israel is reluctant to make any compromises regarding Jerusalem that might allow Palestinians to threaten the sanctity of the shrines of any religion in the holy city.