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Unlike most places in the world where people get buried where they lived, for over two millennia people have traveled from far and wide to die in Jerusalem. But now the city is running out of graves, and against the backdrop of the Israel–Palestine conflict, burial is often a political matter.
For close to five millennia, people have been dying in Jerusalem. Canaanites, Jews, Muslims, Christians, Crusaders and Mamluks, Ottomans, and Greek Orthodox; British generals and French brigadiers; King David and Jesus—all have been buried within the city.
This is part of what it means to be a holy city: Jerusalem is important to people who have never set foot in it.
If you drive up Highway 1 from Tel Aviv, the first sight to greet you as you enter Jerusalem is Har HaMenuchot—the Mount of Rest, Jerusalem’s largest cemetery, a silent slope of marble and Jerusalem stone. Driving beneath it, you feel as if Jerusalem has sent the dead to greet its visitors and attest to its reputation as a city that lies both on Earth and in the heavens.
On the next mountain peak is Mount Herzl Cemetery, the resting place of military personnel and Israel’s national leaders, from Benjamin Herzl, the frenetic visionary of Zionism, to David Ben Gurion, who, in his dogged insistence, turned Herzl’s vision into an imperfect reality.
To the east is Mount of Olives Cemetery, lying on the edge of Palestinian East Jerusalem, overlooking the El Aqsa Mosque and the location of the destroyed Temple Mount. The 3,000-year-old Jewish cemetery is surrounded by churches and mosques and is an important religious site for both Jews and Christians as the anticipated site of the final battle between good and evil. Those buried there will have a front-row seat for the coming of the Messiah, and it is the first place where the dead will rise when the final drama of humankind is resolved.
In front of it, on the slopes of Mount Zion, at the foot of the eastern wall of the Temple Mount, and opposite the Gate of Mercy, there is Bab El Rahma, a Muslim cemetery built by Ottoman sultan Sulieman the Magnificent.
On the north edge of Jerusalem, on Mount Samuel ridge, is Nabi Samuel’s tomb, a sacred burial site for Muslims. And, to the south, the tomb of Jesus is found on Calvary Hill in the heart of ancient Jerusalem.
Jerusalem has several other Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cemeteries, ranging from ones for Crusaders to a British cemetery for World War I soldiers. It seems, traveling through the city, that Jerusalem is a place that belongs to the dead as much as to the living.
Those buried in Jerusalem will have a front-row seat for the coming of the Messiah, when the final drama of humankind is resolved.
Even with all these cemeteries, finding an eternal resting place in Jerusalem is increasingly challenging. Israel has one of the fastest-growing demographics globally, with its population set to double in thirty years. By 2048, Israel’s centennial, the state will need approximately 2 million additional graves to accommodate its dead. This is exacerbated by the fact that Judaism has strict rules about burial. Bodies are inhumed; cremation is not allowed. Also, due to the belief in resurrection when the Messiah comes, Judaism does not allow the moving of graves. The Israeli state delegates oversight of burials and cemeteries to a number of different government ministries and organizations, some dealing with religious aspects, others with land, and still others with maintaining the cemeteries.
In Israel, all state cemeteries are religious. The Rabbinate, Israel's religious-Jewish authority, has a stronghold on matters concerning cycle of life: births, marriages, divorces, and funerals. Even though 40 percent of Israelis consider themselves secular according to a 2016 Pew poll, Jewish-Israelis cannot choose to have a nonreligious funeral. They have to undergo a Jewish-religious ceremony even if they’re secular or atheist. All Jewish burial matters are overseen by Chevra Kadisha, a Jewish religious organization founded in Prague in the sixteenth century. Its members prepare bodies for burial, transport them to the cemetery, and deliver funeral rites. There are over 600 Chevra Kadisha groups operating in Israel, some under the Ministry of Religious Affairs and others privately.
There are some exceptions: 10 percent of municipal cemeteries are reserved for secular interment, and there are privately owned secular cemeteries, mostly located on kibbutzim—the old socialist collective communities. However, they have been barred from selling plots to Israelis who want a secular funeral. But any Jew, Israeli or not, can buy a plot in any other municipal cemetery. There are a few companies that perform cremations, but they aren’t regulated and are fighting an uphill battle against the state; even the locations of their crematoria are hidden for fear of retaliation. One company, Alay Shalechet (Autumn Leaves), is leading the fight for awareness; its website cites a number of biblical and popular examples of Jews who chose to have their bodies turned to ash, from King Saul to “Albert Einstein, Peter Sellers, and Amy Winehouse.”
• • •
Of the impetus behind the new underground necropolis, the project’s head said, ‘I believe that the land was given to the living and not to the dead.’
Despite the rigid Jewish orthodoxy, people from within the religious world are working to find creative ways to overcome the city’s burial crisis.
Opened in 1951, Har HaMenuchot was the first cemetery in the modern state of Israel and has been a pioneer in finding ways to enlarge the city’s burial capacity. In a large ceremony held in November 2019, attended by the mayor of Jerusalem and the chief rabbis of Israel, “Eternal Tunnels,” a massive new underground necropolis, was opened under Har HaMenuchot. In development for over a decade, its first phase consists of 8,000 burial chambers (out of a planned 23,000) tunneled into the side of the mountain. The head of the project, Yehuda B’shari, a talkative, rambunctious man in his fifties, said of its impetus: “I believe that the land was given to the living and not to the dead.”
The tunnels are sixteen meters by sixteen meters, and there are twelve floors of burial niches, which on each floor are stacked four high. The “pièce de résistance,” according to planners, is the main shaft, which is sixty meters wide, seventeen stories deep, and intended for elevators that can hold up to a hundred visitors at a time. All levels are elevator accessible, and there’s a network of bridges connecting each section, motion-sensor lighting, and an intricate ventilation system. Visitors will be able to make their way through this underground maze with electric vehicles and locate their loved ones with a designated app. At the entrance to the tunnel, there will be a small museum dedicated to Jewish burial traditions.
The project brought together an unlikely consortium of people who were all individually concerned with the question of how to expand Jerusalem’s burial capacity, including B’shari at Har HaMenuchot; Arik Glazer and Adi Alphandary of Rolzur, a company that specializes in tunneling; and Henania Schoor, head of the Jerusalem branch of Chevra Kadisha.
According to Alphandary, Rolzur’s head of business development, the company’s CEO, Glazer, became interested in 2013 when he heard that environmentalists had objected to expanding Har HaMenuchot into an adjacent forest. Glazer thought that tunnels might offer a solution, and eventually approached Schoor with his idea. Alphandary remember that when Glazer finished his presentation, “Schoor simply smiled and said, ‘What took you so long? I’ve been waiting for you for years.’” The team them approached B’shari at Har HaMenuchot, who recalls:
We formed a relationship and began thinking of the feasibility of this project. In the beginning, everyone told us we were delusional. The rock at the surface level wasn’t stable, but we did a preliminary pilot test. We dug a short fifty-meter tunnel. As we dug, we were ecstatic to find it was stable. From there, we went full steam ahead. So instead of inventing something new, we went back to our tradition. . . . We were now designing a catacomb cemetery fit for the twenty-first century.
“Catacomb burial was prevalent throughout Jewish history, especially between the first and third centuries,” says Eric Meyers, emeritus professor of biblical studies and archaeology at Duke University, who specializes in the archaeology of burial in ancient Israel and Roman Palestine.
Whole families were put in ossuaries. It stems from the biblical story of Jacob, who ‘gathered to his people.’ The Israelites ‘schlepped’ Joseph’s bones to his ancestors’ grave when they returned to the land of Israel from the bondage of Egypt. Being buried in this way ensured that family members would reunite in the afterlife and will rise again when the Messiah comes.
In earlier centuries, Jews were not buried in the earth. They were laid in a shroud in a rock tomb, being checked by their family. The bodies were left to be desiccated for a year. Then the bones were placed in an ossuary in caves, often the name of the family carved outside the rock tomb. In Jerusalem, there were charnel houses. The main insistence is that these ossuaries had connection to the soil, as the saying ‘to dust you shall return.’
For two and a half years, B’shari and the heads of Rolzur met every week in Tel Aviv for eight-hour meetings, discussing the project with architects, geologists, civil engineers, and scientists. Of course, rabbis oversaw the whole process.
“How do you bring together a tunneling company that specializes in civil engineering and rabbis who specialize in godly matters?” I ask.
“That’s why they invented this thing called Yehuda B’shari!” he laughs loudly. “I thought about the project day and night because it would not only have a geological impact but a religious one, too.
“For example, Cohens”—descendants of the Jewish priests—“aren’t allowed to enter cemeteries because it’s considered tainted. That’s fine when it comes to regular burial. Just don’t go in, right? But how can Cohens drive on roads that sit on top of the cemetery? Impurity doesn’t stay in the cemetery but projects upward to the heavens,” he muses. “Building new roads would be vastly expensive, but kicking the can down the road would only cause delays that would turn the whole project into a white elephant.
“I thought about it for days, until one night I woke up at 3:00 a.m. with a solution: if we did not bury anyone in the top tier of the twelfth floor, it would create a layer of ‘religious insulation,’ if you will. Then, I had to make sure it was structurally sound.”
‘There was one Holocaust survivor who bought a plot in Har HaMenuchot and told me, “This is my revenge against the Nazis.”’
This is maybe what it means to live in a city that is holy: the sacred isn’t confined to the church nave or the synagogue’s ark. It seeps from the halls of prayer into the streets, it adheres to the stones and trees. It is not just in books of Mishna but also in technical blueprints.
B’shari didn’t only discuss the matter with the architects. He also consulted with Rabbi Jacob Roja, an authority on religious burial practices as well Israel’s most revered forensics expert. Only once B’shari confirmed that the designs adhered to Halacha (Jewish religious law) did the project proceed. “We even looked at the precision of the laser measurement tools to determine if we could do this. Halacha, in this way, is like engineering: Its validity lies in the smallest details.”
The next hurdle was Israeli bureaucracy. The government would only give it support once Rolzur and Chevra Kadisha had already raised the lion’s share of the estimated 300 million shekel ($83.3 million) cost.
“So, what was the role of the government in all of this?” I asked.
“Their role,” B’shari laughs, “is to make everything harder. What does the Mishna say? ‘A handful of food will not satisfy the lion; neither can a pit be filled again with its dust.’ So every shekel we make from selling plots goes to getting back our investment.
“Chevra Kadisha groups grew in Jerusalem in Ottoman times and under the British Mandate because they didn’t trust the local authorities. After the state was formed, governments took advantage of the existing organization and washed their hands of any responsibility for the matter.”
• • •
Unlike most places in the world where people get buried where they lived, for over two millennia people have traveled from far and wide to die in Jerusalem. This is another aspect of what it means to be a holy city: Jerusalem is important to people who have never set foot in it.
Jerusalem is a tinderbox. This is why Jerusalemites always look distracted; they live in anticipation of the explosion.
“The famous first-century rabbi Judah ha-Nasi wrote, ‘He who is buried there is as if he was born in Jerusalem.’ Being buried in Jerusalem is said to have atoning powers,” Meyers said. “It was the belief that those who were buried close to the Temple Mount would be the first to rise when the Messiah comes.”
As a result, even those buried outside of Israel often have soil from Jerusalem sprinkled on their graves.
This destination-burial tradition ebbed and flowed throughout the centuries, but experienced a resurgence after 1967, when East Jerusalem came under the auspices of the Israeli state. In the past few decades, American and French Jews in particular have bought up plots in Jerusalem. This has led to a surge in prices: today, American Jews can expect to pay more than $20,000 to get buried in and around Jerusalem. This means also that, for many Israeli citizens, burial in Jerusalem is out of the question: the government only ensures local burial, so a resident of Tel Aviv or Haifa might have to pay upward of 10,000 shekels ($2,800) for a Jerusalem interment. But in the absence of state regulation, there is no limit to the number of foreigners who can be buried here, save that of space itself.
Over the years, companies have sprung up specializing in bringing Jews from abroad for burial. They help overcome the bureaucracy, fly the body to Israel, and connect grieving families with the Israeli burial societies. Rabbi Michoel Fletcher is the founder of Ahuzat Kever, a nonprofit that helps with the purchase of plots and with transportation logistics for Jews all around the world. “We have clients from France, South Africa, Canada, the UK, and, of course, the United States,” Rabbi Fletcher said in his deep Mancunian accent. “Ironically, it is said that buying a burial plot is a talisman for long life.” Transporting bodies to the Holy Land isn’t as simple as shipping an Amazon delivery. “Transportation is pretty tricky because it has to be done right away. If the body isn’t shipped in the first 48 hours, we need to wait until we can send only the bones. I help with all the Israeli mishegas, you know.” According to him, there are a number of reasons international Jews undertake the difficult process: “For religious reasons, to be close to family, and some, although not many, for Zionist reasons. There was one Holocaust survivor who bought a plot in Har HaMenuchot and told me, ‘This is my revenge against the Nazis.’”
Rabbi Fletcher made sure that his own mother would be buried in Jerusalem: “She never thought of coming to live in Israel, but we persuaded her. She spent her final three years of life here. We would take walks around these hills. Now she’s buried here, along with my father, whose bones I brought a few years back. Who would have thought that both of them would end up here, on these magnificent hills? How beautiful is that?”
On resurrection, Rabbi Fletcher says: “Yes, it’s part of it. I actually just buried a Cohen who wanted to be in front of the Temple Mount. People want to be first in line. But, religiously, it’s complicated; resurrection is not first come, first serve.”
Resurrection isn’t only reserved for Jews, of course. For all three Abrahamic religions, Jerusalem is set to be the scene of the final clash of civilizations before the world is rid of evil. For some, resurrection will be a reawakening to a utopic universe governed by tranquility in justice. But before humankind wakes up to salvation, as the Quran says, “every soul will taste death.”
Dispensationalists believe that Jews play a crucial, if unwitting, role in Jesus’ second coming. Despite the gloomy prospect at the end of days—convert or burn in hell—Israel has nonetheless welcomed the political and monetary support of evangelicals.
Jerusalem itself is a city of binaries where death and life, religion and secularism, Jew and Arab, tradition and modernism clash again and again. Walking through its stone-walled streets, you can’t help but encounter this tension. You brush up against all swaths of Jewish Orthodoxy, from the stern Litvaks—looking at the ground, always in a hurry—to the frenzied Breslavs jumping up and down to trance music in the market square. Muslim vendors stand near Jewish Zionists; a border patrol officer talks to an army sergeant; a Greek Orthodox priest rushes through; a humble vegetable stand is adjacent to a hip, pricey restaurant. Jerusalem is a tinderbox. This is why Jerusalemites always look distracted; they live in anticipation of the explosion.
Some look forward to this explosion and are even trying to hasten it. They’re doing this because they believe that the assembling of Jews in the Holy Land, dead or alive, is a necessary step to spark the coming of the Messiah and are pushing policy to usher in the end of times.
At the U.S. embassy dedication in Jerusalem in 2016, two U.S. clergymen offered prayers. The first was Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, and the second was John Hagee, head of Christians United for Israel. Both spoke of God as standing with Israel. And both are believers in Dispensationalism, a doctrine founded on an ostensibly literal reading of the Christian Bible. In his benediction, Pastor Hagee talked about this prophecy, saying: “Jerusalem is where Messiah will come and will establish a kingdom that will never end.”
Dispensationalists believe that Israel and the Jews play a crucial, if unwitting, role in Jesus’ second coming. Specifically, they believe that when all the Jews gather in Israel, Jesus will descend from heaven to the Mount of Olives and will defeat the Antichrist at the Battle of Armageddon, subsequently establishing the Millennium.
Despite the gloomy prospect for Jews at the end of days—convert or burn in hell—the state of Israel has nonetheless welcomed the political support of evangelical Christians. This is because many Dispensationalists are self-described Christian Zionists, an ideology that mandates political and monetary support for Israel. Christian Zionists believe that Israel’s founding in 1948, its overwhelming victory in the 1967 Six-Day War, and its conflict with the Arab–Muslim world are signs of God’s special dispensation for the Jews. As Pastor Hagee said in a Sunday sermon in his Texas Church: “We can understand the future by what’s happening to them.’”
“They believe that when all Jews converge in Jerusalem, the end of times will come,” Meyers said. “Currently, I am consulting for the Bible Museum in D.C. We’re trying to make the museum more biblically and historically sound, but the owners are all in on biblical literalism.” The Bible Museum is being created by the Green family. David Green, the family’s patriarch and owner of the Hobby Lobby franchise, is a devout Dispensationalist who became infamous after a landmark Supreme Court decision stated that the company didn’t have to cover reproductive health services for female employees due to religious freedom. Green is less known for founding Covenant Journey, an evangelical version of Birthright that funds tours in Israel for Christian groups and students. Despite his love of the Holy Land, Green and Hobby Lobby were accused of anti-Semitism for not selling Jewish products, such as menorahs, with one worker telling a Jewish customer, “We don’t cater to you people.” “To Dispensationalists, Jews are a tool to achieve a greater goal,” Meyers explained.
The moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem suggests the extent to which Christian Zionism has become integral to U.S. foreign policy.
Under the Trump administration, Dispensationalism and Christian Zionism have influence in the White House. Mike Pence, a Catholic evangelical, was the first White House official to speak at a Christians United for Israel conference, the largest gathering of Christian Zionists in the United States. “My support for Israel stems largely from my personal faith,” Pence told Congressional Quarterly in 2002. “In the Bible, God promises Abraham: ‘Those who bless you I will bless, and those who curse you I will curse.’” According to an article in the Washington Post, Pence “sees Jews as nothing more than instruments in an apocalyptic narrative that seeks the return of Christ.” But it’s not only Mike Pence. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also a devout evangelical who said during a speech in Kansas, “It is a never-ending struggle until . . . the Rapture.” For Christian Zionists and their ilk, Jerusalem is the place where all conflicts, earthly and heavenly, will be settled. The moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem suggests the extent to which this belief has become integral to U.S. foreign policy.
• • •
In Jerusalem, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is present in all things, even in matters of the afterlife. Accordingly, in a city where every building, brick, or relic is a potential political flashpoint, cemeteries are transformed from places of rest to zones of political and religious contention.
The Jewish Mount of Olives Cemetery lies at the edge of the Palestinian neighborhood of Ras Al-Amud and borders the Palestinian neighborhoods of A-Tur and A-Sawana. The cemetery comes under the auspices of the Elad Association, a controversial right-wing institution that manages the City of David archaeological site. The Jerusalem Development Authority has also invested millions of shekels in linking the Mount of Olives Cemetery to Western Jerusalem. After years of neglect and acts of hostility toward Jewish visitors from the nearby population, the cemetery and surrounding ground have gone through extensive renovation, offering heritage tours and even a planned zip line from the Mount of Olives area over the Valley of Hinnom, or Gehenna (a name which is also the Hebrew word for “hell”).
‘You know what’s most ironic?’ Mizrahi says about the destruction of the Muslim cemetery. ‘This site was excavated to build the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Human Dignity.’
Yontan Mizrahi, an anthropologist and CEO of Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO working to defend cultural heritage sites, looks at stones the way lawyers scrutinize legal precedents. “Unlike most cemeteries in the world, which are sites of reunion and reflection, Mount of Olives Cemetery is a political site,” Mizrahi said. “Elad Foundation, along with the Israeli government, is developing it in order to lay claims of political sovereignty. The foundation is marketing it as a tourist site in order to say: ‘We were here first.’
“The Elad Foundation is working to ‘Jewify’ East Jerusalem through tourism and ownership of the land through archaeological initiatives. Together with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the foundation has been excavating in and around the Old City Basin to find ‘proof’ of Jewish presence.”
One of the Elad Foundation’s initiatives was the controversial excavation of the pilgrimage road ascending to the Temple Mount. In attendance at the opening ceremony were U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman, GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, and Sarah Netanyahu, wife of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Friedman is a welcome figure both with evangelic circles and Jewish nationalists. From moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to recognizing the Golan Heights, to supporting annexation of the West Bank, Ambassador Friedman’s support of the hard-right flanks of Jewish-Israeli society is as unsubtle as the sledgehammer he took to the wall of a controversial archeological site in East Jerusalem. There, Mizrahi says, archaeologists dug fifteen feet under homes in Silwan, the East Jerusalem Palestinian neighborhood that has been a center of contention since 2004 when right-wing religious Jews began buying houses in the heart of the neighborhood. “They dug horizontally under people’s homes. When you dig that way, you disregard all the layers above; this is a type of archaeology that, instead of exposing history, buries it,” Mizrahi said.
“Practices that wouldn’t be acceptable in and around Jewish archaeological and religious sites are done without hesitation when it comes to Christian and Muslim sites,” Mizrahi continues. He tells the story of Mamilla Cemetery in the western part of Jerusalem. The cemetery was founded during the Crusades, then became a Muslim cemetery in the twelfth century after the Mamluk governor of Tsefad, Emir Aidughdi Kubaki, wished to be buried in Jerusalem. His tomb, known as al-Kebekiyeh, still stands today, derelict and covered in graffiti.
The cemetery came into disrepair with the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In 1964 Jerusalem mayor Mordechai Shalom asked the Chief Qadi, the top Muslim legal official of Jerusalem, to strip the cemetery’s religious status; he agreed to strip 90 percent of the cemetery. The Islamic Movement appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, but in the meantime the Israeli government built a public garden, schools, and municipal parking lot on the grounds. This development was done without excavation, research, and preservation, destroying tombs and human remains.
Cemeteries seem to be about the past, but in many ways they are more about the present and the future. In Jerusalem, cemeteries are liberally conscripted to serve present politics.
Ever since, the cemetery has been a point of contention. The conflict came to a head in the past few years when developers began working on a new site and found graves. Several experts and archaeologists advised stopping construction and appealed to the Supreme Court but lost. The developers continued. They began a rapid archaeological dig done in consecutive shifts from morning to night, making it impossible to conduct proper research of the heritage site. More than a thousand skeletons were exhumed, and many tombs and graves were shattered. Still, if you go there, you can see evidence of graves dating back a millennium.
“You know what’s most ironic in all of this?” Mizrahi told me. “This site was excavated and developed to build the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Human Dignity.”
Another contentious cemetery lies at the eastern wall of the Old City. The Muslim cemetery of Bab Al-Rahma is one of Jerusalem’s earliest cemeteries; according to tradition, burial began there in the eighth century CE. Graves are active, meaning all members of a family share the same plot. According to legend, Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent placed the cemetery before the blocked Gate of Mercy—the one the Messiah is said to enter through—to stop the prophet Elijah from paving the Messiah’s way. In the past decade, several Israeli groups, including the Committee for the Prevention of Destruction of Antiquities on the Temple Mount, have attempted to have the Supreme Court essentially shutter the cemetery by arguing that new burials would do archaeological damage. In 2009, the High Court on the surface rejected the claim, but maintained that Israeli authorities must make certain that new burials do not damage the land. Subsequently, any Silwan resident who wants to bury a loved one in the cemetery must obtain permission from the government.
• • •
Cemeteries seem to be about the past, but in many ways they are more about the present and the future. In Jerusalem, cemeteries are liberally conscripted to serve present politics.
The new catacombs under Har HaMenuchot, meanwhile, are being designed with the far-distant future in mind. One of the design “innovations,” according to B’shari, is that the burial chambers aren’t made of brick or wood but from Styrofoam, which is durable for up to two million years: “It’s a lighter way of building and sustaining cemeteries. Also, at this depth, the temperature is fixed at 22 degrees Celsius, so we spend less on heating and cooling. Our project won a big award for these exact reasons. . . . People are coming from all over the world to look at this project, not only for burial projects.” The same design concept, it seems, could be repurposed for shopping malls and parking garages. “Our solution can be executed anywhere that has the right topography. It answers so many challenges for cities with limited urban spaces.”
“What will happen when the belly of the mountain runs out of space?” I asked B’shari.
“I believe religious leaders will have to make a big shift and advance the idea of older burial traditions. This means going back to collecting bone remains into urns and putting them in ossuaries. I know many people are discussing this, and moves are being made behind the scenes, but it’s hard to get people out of their habits—especially Jews. . . . It will take a major rabbi, I believe, to sanction ossuary burial. This will release the floodgates and help advance a more sustainable method to house all those wanting to be buried in our most holy city.”
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