Israeli daily, Haaretz, reported today that the Jerusalem Rabbinical Court has awarded legal and administrative custody over Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus in the middle West Bank to two rabbis who have been involved in organizing visits to the site without the army’s permission. Nablus is under full Palestinian control since the Oslo Accords were signed. They require both sides to refrain from unilateral changes in the status quo. Rabbis Shlomo Ben-Shimon and Mordechai Gross, who head the organization Shechem Ehad (“One Nablus”), had asked the court to recognize them as the site’s sole legal custodians, asserting that unspecified “army officials” had asked them to set up “a legal entity that will manage, operate and supervise the holy site” so as to increase the number of visitors.

Rabbinical court judge Rabbi Haim Rosenthal granted their request for the next 18 months, deciding that [they] are the “representatives entitled to appear, legally and publicly, before any court or institution on matters connected to” the tomb, a religious pilgrimage site. The Court will then review the decision. Ostensibly, therefore, it gave them permission to approve visits by Jewish worshippers.

The court also approved the appointments of Netanel Shnir, Yoel Peretz and Yaakov Levy to run the site in practice. Shnir, another key figure in Shechem Ehad, was quoted on the website Hakol Hayehudi in November 2010 as saying that when the IDF refused to approve requests for permits to visit the tomb, “We’d go in even without the army’s okay. We always sought to work cooperatively, but if it didn’t happen then we’d do it anyway.”

The report added that Shnir viewed the ultimate goal of this activity as returning to Nablus “to settle there and inherit the land.”

The IDF Spokesman’s Office told Haaretz that the claim that the rabbis are henceforth in charge of the site is ridiculous. “Visits to Joseph’s Tomb are coordinated by the Civil Administration and arranged by the Israel Police, in coordination with rabbinical figures, including the rabbis mentioned, and the Palestinian Authority,” it said in a statement.

An army source added that the person responsible for the site is the officer in charge of religious affairs in the Civil Administration, and that the rabbinical court has no authority whatsoever over the West Bank. He also said the IDF has no intention of changing the status quo at the tomb.

If the army source is right, this means the court exceeded its authority.