Everything in this city makes you feel unwelcomed. The graffiti on the walls, Shahid ("martyr") posters hanging in the streets. You are frightened even when driving with five other people in a small car, singing aloud.
Entering Nablus with a group of Breslov Hasidim is terrifying. "Don't take a picture," Ben-Yosef Livnat ordered, only four days prior to his death. "It's bad luck."
Around 30 Breslov Hasidim met in a spring located south of Nablus, in the West Bank. This is their semi-secret meeting place where they gather to bathe before the journey begins.
It was nearly 2 am on Thursday. The group's last visit to Nablus before the fatal shooting incident which claimed Livnat's life – and I was along for the ride. We stood by the spring with our six vehicles. In the valley below us we spotted an IDF force at Hawara checkpoint, in charge of preventing worshipers from entering the holy city.
Our group leaders, including Livnat, huddled around and came up with a plan to mislead the soldiers. It was decided that one car would attempt to pass the checkpoint with its lights turned off, to see whether the IDF actually blocked off the entrance. It was now 2:55 am.
Misleading the IDF
When we finally got to the checkpoint we discovered it was blocked off by a truck. To my surprise the motorcade began to travel south, away from Nablus. Two IDF jeeps soon joined us, driving right behind.
We split into groups as the car I was in drove for a while until it turned around, heading back towards Nablus at over 120 m/ph. The jeeps had no way of catching up to us.
We entered Nablus through a secret side entrance. The cars turned off their lights, driving slowly into the night. The group began singing.
"Do you know the IDF only enters the city in a shielded convoy?" I asked.
"We all have our own bullet-proof vests," the guy sitting next to me told me. "The IDF have theirs and we have our prayers and ancestral merits."
We soon reached the main streets of Nablus. I gathered the courage to open the window and take some pictures. Livnat was driving right behind us.
The Palestinian police post near Joseph's Tomb was empty. No time to waste. We quickly ran to the tomb, leaving the keys in the cars, ready to take off in any moment. Livnat ran out of his car, lifting his hands in excitement.
"To the righteous one!" they yelled heading towards the holy site.
Ecstasy filled dance
Meanwhile, the Hasidim were praying quickly, trying to utter as many prayers as they can before having to dash. They leaned down and kissed the tomb. Their eyes sparkled, as if they had just met their love for a brief moment. Then the group encircled the holy site in an ecstasy filled dance.
Suddenly they stopped and ran towards the cars. In that exact point, only four days later, the Palestinian police officers would open fire at the group.
We headed south, taking a different route this time. Livnat was leading the convoy.
Livnat broke the law when he entered Joseph's Tomb without authorization, but that is not the reason he was killed. It is deeper than that. Joseph's Tomb is a sensitive subject in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Livnat was killed because he was part of the battle to control the holy site. Everybody wants to renovate it, preserve it – but those who try the hardest are the Breslov Hasidim, and Livnat was one of their most vigorous standouts.
On our way to Jerusalem we passed by the Palestinian town of Awarta, where the Fogel family killers came from. We entered. It turned out this is where Aaron's sons, Ithamar and Eleazar, are buried as well as the seventy Elders.
The sun was rising as we left Awarta. I breathed a sigh of relief.
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