Sunday 27 March 2005

Key to the Sepulchre

Muslim family holds key to sacred sepulchre

For centuries, their ancestors have opened door to church where Jesus believed buried

March 22, 2005: Jerusalem, Israel: Wajeeh Y. Nuseibeh, Custodian and Door-Keeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre opens the door of the church every day.
 Photo by David Blumenfeld/Special to The Chronicle Photo: David Blumenfeld/Special To The
Wajeeh Y. Nuseibeh, Custodian and Door-Keeper of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre opens the door of the church every day. Photo by David Blumenfeld/Special to The Chronicle Photo: David Blumenfeld/Special To The Chronicle

Jerusalem - Every morning at 4 a.m., Wajeeh Nuseibeh walks through the walled Old City of Jerusalem to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the most revered shrine in Christendom. He takes an ancient 12-inch iron key, climbs a small ladder and opens the huge wooden doors to the place that most Christians believe is the site of the crucifixion, tomb and resurrection of Jesus.
Every evening at nightfall, after three raps of an iron doorknocker spaced out over half an hour, Nuseibeh closes up and places the key in safekeeping.
He inherited the job from his father and grandfather, in a chain stretching back more than 1,300 years. But surprisingly, Nuseibeh, doorkeeper of the site of the crucifixion, is, like his ancestors, a Muslim.
"It goes from father to son, from one generation to the next," said Nuseibeh, a small, dapper 55-year-old man in a suit and tie. "I was 15 when I first opened the church. I thought it was fun. As I grew up I realized it is a big responsibility."
This weekend, thousands of Christians flock to the Holy Sepulchre for Easter services, processions and the ancient ceremony of the Holy Fire, in which Nuseibeh plays a central role. The ceremony, held on Holy Saturday, the day before Easter, symbolizes the resurrection of Christ.
Worshipers pack into the church, trying to get as close as possible to the marble-clad tomb, or sepulchre, where they believe Jesus' body was laid. The oil lamps inside the mausoleum that contains the tomb are extinguished, and a huge stone is rolled across the entrance, which is then sealed shut by Greek Orthodox priests.
"If there are no oil lamps lit, the tomb will be sealed with wax. I am the witness. I put my stamp, the name of the family, in the wax on the tomb," Nuseibeh said.
What happens next looks like a miracle. The Orthodox patriarch begins to pray, and a bluish Holy Fire begins to emanate from within the tomb, lighting the lamps and sometimes flying around the church over the heads of the assembled worshipers and even lighting the candles of believers. Nuseibeh has been the official witness at this ceremony for more than 20 years.
The church is a major attraction for both pilgrims and tourists. A vast warren of chapels, tunnels and caves, with architectural remnants that date back to the 4th century, it spans a broad range of traditions, from the westernized cathedral of the Catholics to the icons of the Orthodox churches. It houses the final stations on the Via Dolorosa -- the last journey of Jesus to the crucifixion.
The church is jealously managed by five competing and often disputatious Christian denominations -- Roman Catholic (also called Latin here), Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox (sometimes called Jacobite). There also is a small Ethiopian Orthodox chapel on the roof. Sometimes the tensions over the right to clean or to pray in a particular area of the church spill over into violence. Nuseibeh's family has helped keep the peace between them since Caliph Omar Ibn Kattab first conquered Jerusalem for the Muslims in 638. The only gap was during 88 years of Crusader rule in the 12th century.
According to family history, when Salah A-Din recaptured Jerusalem in 1191, he promised English King Richard the Lion Heart he would invite the Nuseibeh family to resume their role as custodians.
Since that time, the Judeh family, also Muslims, have been given the key for safekeeping overnight, but only the Nuseibehs serve as doorkeeper.
Once a year, the three biggest denominations -- Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian -- publicly renew their request to Nuseibeh to be the "custodian and doorkeeper," as written on his business card and multimedia Web site (
About 100 years ago, the key was stolen. Although it was eventually recovered, a spare now is kept in a locked room inside the church.
For his hereditary labor, Nuseibeh receives $15 every month, an income he supplements by giving tours of the church. But the ancient honor is worth more to him than the token payment. When tensions boil over between the denominations, Nuseibeh is the one who calms the waters.
"Like all brothers, they sometimes have problems. We help them settle their disputes. We are the neutral people in the church. We are the United Nations. We help preserve peace in this holy place," he said.
Nuseibeh said he still becomes anxious before the big ceremonies or when important visitors arrive. "I realize there are thousands of people waiting to go into the church, and they are waiting for me to open it, and I start to imagine what will be happen if the lock will be broken or the key is damaged and I can't open the door."
But that has never happened in the 20 years since he took over from his father. He hopes that one day his son Obadah, now 21, will step into his footsteps, but that's not certain. "He is at college, studying to be a sports trainer," Nuseibeh said. "Maybe he will not follow me, and then my brother or my cousin will take over."
Nuseibeh said he is deeply touched by the Christian rituals and feels a close affinity with the church, but he does not pray there.
"I know every stone. It is like my home," he said. "But I go to pray at the Omar Mosque next door."

Tuesday 8 March 2005

Canadians observe Israeli security

Tuesday, March 8, 2005 - Page A12


BET HORON POLICE TRAINING BASE, WEST BANK -- Commissioner Gwenneth Boniface of the Ontario Provincial Police looked on as a battered white Peugot appeared from the hills near the West Bank city of Ramallah. Seconds later, two Israeli police jeeps screeched to a halt, blocking it front and rear.

"Put your hands out of the window and throw the keys on the roof," the police ordered through a loudspeaker as armed officers took up their positions, their M16 rifles trained on the vehicle.

One by one, the suspects were ordered out of the car on the side nearest the police and told to lift their shirts, turn around and lie on the ground. The second suspect was wearing a zip-up jacket. He removed it, revealing a suicide bomb belt strapped around his torso. Suddenly, he produced a pistol and began running toward the Israeli jeep, firing as he ran. The police opened fire, cutting him down.

Fortunately, it was just a demonstration for the benefit of Commissioner Boniface and 20 colleagues from her police force and the Ontario government.

The Canadians were spending the day as observers at Beit Horon, a training base for the Israeli border police, but earlier in the day, they got closer than they might have liked to the real thing. They were visiting the emergency room at Jerusalem's Hadassah University Hospital when two ambulances screamed to a halt outside and medics rushed in, carrying two border policemen wounded by a Palestinian sniper in the West Bank city of Hebron.

It was the last day of a week-long Israeli visit by the Canadian law-enforcement officials, headed by Ontario Community Safety and Correctional Services Minister Monte Kwinter and former Toronto police chief Julian Fantino, who has been appointed as the province's new head of emergency response. The trip took them from the Golan Heights to the Dead Sea, and from an Israeli correctional facility to a briefing with the Palestinian security adviser to the Middle Eastern peace negotiations.

Their Israeli hosts, whose battle gear and assault rifles lay thrown over chairs in their office, seconds away in case needed for action, initially thought the Canadians looked too smart to be serious in their full-dress royal blue uniforms, medals and shiny-peaked caps. But the visitors said they learned some useful lessons.

Commissioner Boniface, the most senior commander on the trip, said she hopes Toronto will never witness scenes such as the ones acted out at Beit Horon, but she noted that behind the scenes there is "a paramilitary structure in policing in Canada," with special units similar to the Israeli fighters.

"The type of skill and specialization would not be on a par, but in the same range," she said. "What is important is to understand what is happening around the world so when you watch the operation of your own people, you watch it in that context."

Mr. Fantino said he was most impressed by the "seamless" co-ordination of Israeli security and emergency services at the scenes of attacks, and said he hopes the same can be achieved in Canada. Everything has changed since the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, he said, and Canadians need to be prepared for the worst.

Saturday 5 March 2005

Israeli teens impress Garneau with project

Saturday, March 5, 2005 - Page A17

Special to The Globe and Mail

TEL AVIV -- Canada's first astronaut Marc Garneau has seen a lot of things most ordinary mortals never will. But even he was taken aback by the school project of a group of Israeli teenagers this week.

Mr. Garneau could hardly believe it when 15-year-old Tal Pritzker and his fellow students in the Space Technology group at the Meyerhoff Technical School in Tel Aviv showed him their latest project: a satellite and earth-tracking station that should be ready for launch in about two years.

"I'm amazed by what you've done," he told them. "I'd like to hire you all. It was very impressive. I don't think I've ever met youngsters who are so well informed."

"I was bowled over," he said in an interview. "There is a school named after me, the Marc Garneau Collegiate Institute, where we teach space sciences, but they've never actually built a satellite."

Mr. Garneau, president of the Canadian Space Agency, is leading a week-long trade mission to Israel to sign a co-operation agreement with the Israel Space Agency on Earth observation, small satellites and encouraging young people to learn about space.

It is both his and the agency's first visit to Israel. He is accompanied by representatives of six Canadian companies that are active in space technology and eager to explore commercial projects for the first time with their Israeli counterparts.

"Space gives us a unique perspective on our world. Seen from space, the Earth is one tiny, fragile, blue planet in an ocean of infinity. It's clear we need to work together and to help each other if we're going to preserve this planet," he told the students.

During his first flight, Mr. Garneau said he watched with alarm as a pall of smoke covering one million square kilometres settled in the upper atmosphere from the burning of the Amazonian rain forests. As the shuttle continued on its orbit, he saw evidence of man-made disasters across the globe.

Over Kazakhstan, he saw the dried-up Sea of Aral, once the fourth-largest body of inland water in the world, drained by the Soviets for irrigation. "It had terrible effects. It dried up, then the minerals in the dried-up areas blew over the land and essentially sterilized it."

Mr. Garneau said that Canadian scientists are working on programs triggered by space observation and exploration to tackle these and other environmental problems, including climate change and the depletion of the ozone layer.

The five-year, $5-billion budget for space research just announced by the government will keep Canada at the cutting edge, he added.

"We've learned a great deal about computer technology by rising to the challenge of sending rockets into space," he said. "The technology that we developed to build the robotic arm for the U.S. space shuttle, the Canadarm, in the early '80s, is now being used to perform robotic surgery."

Canadian medical scientists have gleaned vital information on bone loss from osteoporosis which occurs at 10 times the normal rate in astronauts because of weightlessness. A direct result has been the development of a new type of fake bone, Skelite, that can be used to help people heal faster after surgery.

Friday 4 March 2005

Future uncertain for the living and the dead

Fate of a tiny cemetery in the Gaza Strip preoccupies loved one facing eviction

Friday, March 4, 2005 - Page A10

Special to The Globe and Mail

GUSH KATIF CEMETERY, GAZA STRIP -- On the eve of the 12th anniversary of his son's death, Shlomo Yulis sat by the grave in this hilltop cemetery and looked out over the sand dunes at the sun sinking into the blue waters of the Mediterranean.

If all goes to plan, Mr. Yulis and his family will be evicted from their homes in July when Israel withdraws from the Gaza Strip. They have received no official information about what compensation they will receive or where they will go. Their fears have been increased by the fact that no one has told them what will happen to the grave of Etai, who died in 1993 at the age of 14 after a three-year battle with leukemia.

As the 7,000 residents of the Gush Katif settlement prepare to fight a last-ditch political battle to save their homes and jobs, fears for the fate of the 46 dead lying in the community's tiny cemetery is adding to the pain of the living.

"He wanted to be buried here, because this was where he was born and lived all his life," said Mr. Yulis, a retired teacher.

"Just before he died, there was talk of moving us out and he hesitated, thinking of the pain it would cause us to have to move his grave. But in the end he decided he wanted it to be here. I can't believe that they will come and put 46 families through this suffering. It's wicked."

The cemetery was established in 1987, when a young local boy died of an illness. The residents believed it was an act of faith that their presence in the area would be permanent and peaceful. But the second grave they dug was for the local rabbi, killed in a terrorist attack at the entrance to his settlement. Four other local terror victims are buried alongside him.

Eliezer Orbach, director of the Gush Katif Religious Council, which supervises the cemetery, said the burials continued even after the talk of disengagement began last year.

"A few months ago, a soldier called Eli Lutati was killed in an attack on an army outpost nearby," Mr. Orbach said. "We asked the father where his son should be buried, because there was already talk about what [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon was planning. He said it didn't interest him. He said we live here, he will be buried here and God will help us."

Mr. Orbach said there were religious objections to moving the dead once they were buried in the Holy Land, but they were not insurmountable. But he added that no plans have been prepared because no one from the Israeli government or army has contacted the settlers directly.

Gush Katif residents said this week they do not believe the planned disengagement will ever occur. In a place where more than 5,400 mortar shells and other missiles have landed in the past four years and only one person has been killed, it is not surprising to hear the religious members of the community speak of miracles.

Mr. Orbach has been told by at least two revered rabbis that the disengagement plan will be reversed before July.

Mr. Yulis, who was born in the ultra-orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood in Jerusalem, said his faith remains strong. "God wouldn't have done all these miracles for us in the past four years if He meant us to leave."

Battling against his faith is the thought of his son's remains being shipped from place to place or, even worse in his view, being left to their fate.

"They cannot leave my son here so those animals will come and defile his grave as they defiled the cemetery on the Mount of Olives," he said, referring to the ancient Jewish cemetery in Jerusalem that was systematically desecrated under Jordanian rule until 1967.

The "animals," he said, are not the local Palestinians, with whom Mr. Yulis and the other settlers of Gush Katif have enjoyed amiable relations for 10 years. He said he was referring to the "people from Tunis" who arrived with the late Yasser Arafat, who was the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, after the Oslo accords in 1994, and turned the place into "a bad dream."

"When we arrived, there was nothing here -- no green, no buildings, just sand," Mr. Yulis said.

"The locals thought we were crazy wanting to live here, but they welcomed us. We gave them work and it built the local economy. We went shopping in Khan Younis and Dir Al-Balah. The prosperity grew. Then Arafat and his men came and spoiled everything.

"The settlements support 3,000 families from Khan Younis. They don't want this either. What for?"

Mr. Yulis, 66, and his wife, Udi, moved to this deserted patch of the Gaza Strip beachfront between the Arab town of Khan Younis and the sea in 1982. The area, occupied by Egypt in 1948, was captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.

A lifelong member of Mr. Sharon's Likud Party and its various predecessors, he said he feels betrayed by his own leader. "He took my vote and did the precise opposite of what he promised before the election. I feel as though he has spat in my face."

Wednesday 2 March 2005

Palestinians keep the peace in Gaza

Calm has returned as security forces show their determination to stop militants

Wednesday, March 2, 2005 - Page A11

Special to The Globe and Mail

KHAN YOUNIS, GAZA STRIP -- From September, 2000, Palestinian militants in Khan Younis launched daily mortar attacks at the Israeli settlement of Neve Dekalim, only a few hundred metres away.

They sent suicide bombers to attack settlers and soldiers, fired at their houses and cars with Kalashnikovs, drove bomb-laden jeeps into their buses and tunnelled beneath their fortifications to detonate explosives.

In response, the Israelis ringed the city with concrete and barbed wire roadblocks. Soldiers' guns poke out from between the sandbags of fortified positions. Israeli troops have invaded the outskirts of the town, razing homes and buildings that could be used to fire on the soldiers and settlers. They have uprooted olive groves and orchards, "shaving" the land to deprive the militants of cover.

Now, after four years of bloody violence, Khan Younis is quiet. And Major Mahmoud Massoud, who commands a patrol of the Palestinian National Security Forces in a neighbourhood called Hayal al-Amal, wants to keep it that way.

"The people here want calm," Major Massoud said, reflecting on the climate of hope that has spread through Gaza since Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made clear his determination to withdraw from the territory and dismantle Jewish settlements there."After four years they are tired. They also want Israel to do the same thing, to stop the fighting and withdraw.

"We all accept the new policy of our government, and we welcome the Israeli decision to withdraw from Gaza. People are happy now. They want to feel freedom and liberty, an end to occupation."

Major Massoud, whose police station was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 2001 after a Palestinian terror attack, runs his operation from a rundown shack of cinder blocks and corrugated iron.

His men patrol a half-kilometre stretch where the 170,000 residents of Khan Younis face Neve Dekalim, the largest settlement in Gaza with 2,700 inhabitants.

This is where Israeli tanks used to rumble into town, and where masked Palestinians used to pour out of jeeps to fire off a hasty mortar round before diving back into the crowded streets.

Major Massoud's force has grown from three to 30 men since last month's summit meeting between Mr. Sharon and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. They have new Mitsubishi jeeps and now patrol 24 hours a day.

They would like a real police station to replace their tatty shack, and radios to use instead of their own cellphones. But orders from Mr. Abbas to halt the attacks by militants are already being put into effect.

Last week, a car full of masked men pulled up after midnight with a mortar ready to launch at the settlement. Major Massoud said his men were on the scene in seconds.

"We went to them and talked to them," he said. "We said we are in a period of tahdiyeh [calm], and their actions will affect the peace process. They got back in their car and drove away. I don't know what happened after that.

"Our orders are to talk to them, to stop anyone trying to launch missiles. If they don't listen, our orders are to call our commanders and they will deal with them.

"But we would use force if we have to, even if I have to shoot at them."

Major Massoud, 56, was born in the Jabalya refugee camp north of Gaza City. He left for Lebanon in 1967 and joined guerrillas of the Palestine Liberation Organization, returning to Gaza in 1994. After decades of struggle, he said, it was time to stop the fighting.

Jamil Bakr, an 18-year-old student from the neighbourhood, said the local people support the security forces. "They keep us safe," he said. "This will help us to gain our freedom."

South of Khan Younis, along a road that passes through the fields and white-domed greenhouses of the Morag settlement, is a favourite spot for mortar and gun attacks. This sector is under the command of Lieutenant Rami Kandil, who is 22 years old and a contemporary of the militants. He and his men have been on 24-hour patrol here since the summit.

"We were out on patrol near Gadid settlement one night last week when we found a group trying to launch a Kassam rocket," Lt. Kandil said. "We confronted the group and confiscated their weapons. They ran away.

"Our obligation is to stop the rockets and missiles. If I have to arrest them, I will, but I won't shoot at them."

He added: "We feel we are protecting the agreements reached by our political leaders. We are sometimes criticized by our friends who ask why we want to protect the Israelis, but this is the way we can achieve security."

With his young colleagues nodding in agreement, Lt. Kandil continued: "After four years of fighting, everyone is tired. The people want to start a new stage in their lives."

In the town's security headquarters, Colonel Jamal Kayed, commander of the Palestinian National Security Forces for the southern Gaza Strip, fingered a set of wooden prayer beads and offered coffee to his guests.

He has been in the job just two weeks. Mr. Abbas fired his predecessor and dozens of senior officers last month for failing to halt the mortar fire.

"We are under strict orders to prevent infiltration to the Israeli side, to stop the firing of missiles and stop the firing of mortars," he said. "But we must also see something from the Israelis so the people feel that the situation has really changed and they can live peacefully in their own homes."

Col. Kayed was born in 1958 in Ein al-Hilweh refugee camp in Lebanon. He fought with the PLO and attended military training schools in Yemen, Algeria, Iraq, India and Pakistan before returning to Gaza with the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat in 1994.

He said he and the 2,451 men he commands would preserve the fragile calm until Israel's planned withdrawal from Gaza in July. Then he plans to lead them as they take control of the newly liberated lands.