A feature of Israel’s system of colonial occupation and oppression has been its continuous attempts to erase the presence, culture and heritage of the Palestinian people, including through the appropriation and theft of historical sites and artifacts.
On June 20, Palestinians accused Israel of an "abominable act of thuggery and cultural appropriation" after a 1,500-year-old Christian relic was "stolen" by Israeli forces from a town in the Bethlehem area.
The rare artifact, which dates back to the Byzantine period, was used as a water basin for baptisms and is one of three known relics of its kind.
The other two include one recently discovered at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and another belonging to a church in Beit Jibrin, an ancient Palestinian town left in ruins following Israel's 1948 invasion.
Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi called the move "A systemic policy of plunder and a war crime that must not go unpunished," urging UNESCO and its director-general Audrey Azoulay "to speak out and protect Palestinian heritage."
In a report, the Jerusalem Post contested the account, claiming that the baptismal font was not stolen but actually returned to its original site.
According to the Post, the relic was originally stolen 20 years ago from the Khirbet Tuqu site by "unauthorized dealers using a huge forklift."
In the past weeks, Israel has taken other illegal steps targeting Palestinian heritage sites, including sealing off the entrance of Jabal Al-Fureidis (or so-called Herodium) in the Bethlehem district to restrict the access of Palestinians to the site, which Israel has illegally appropriated as an "Israeli National Park."
Israel has also repeatedly targeted other historical and archaeological sites, including UNESCO heritage sites in Palestine such as the old city of Jerusalem, the Battir terraces of Bethlehem, and the Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron.
With a unique history and geographic location, Palestine is a land of great heritage, linked to countless civilizations, empires, prophets and saints that have made it a cultural mosaic that represents tremendous potential for Palestine's present and future.
Israel began to take an interest in the ancient sites of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip immediately after the 1967 Six-Day War and has since used archaeology as a central tool for expanding its control over the land.
On Nov. 29, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) accorded non-member observer state status in the U.N. to the State of Palestine. However, facts on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territory (OPT), and especially in the occupied West Bank, portray a different reality.
Israel, the occupying power, continues to intensify its control over the OPT and its inhabitants through the exercise of both military and civilian control. These measures include but are not limited to the occupying power’s ongoing declarations of closed military zones, the imposition of the so-called “security measures,” Israel’s designation of vast swaths of Palestinian territory as nature reserves, the extensive appropriation of land and demolitions of Palestinian civilian structures.
Additional measures include the systematic denial of building permits for the OPT's Palestinian population coupled with a painfully slow spatial planning process imposed upon Palestinian rural areas (Area C) and occupied east Jerusalem.
However, the practices and policies of the occupying power continue to render the prospects of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination more distant than ever.
After Israel’s occupation in 1967, the archaeological legal framework remained largely intact with crucial modifications through military orders aimed at licensing, excavations and the trade in antiquities. Decrees are issued by the military and become law for every Palestinian living in a given area immediately upon issuance.
For archaeology, the most significant of these was Military Order No. 119, in 1967, which revoked many of the principles of the British Mandate Antiquities Ordinance and placed responsibility for antiquities under military officials.
According to this order concerning the Law of Antiquities, all appointments made or jurisdiction granted by the Jordanian government pertaining to the management of antiquities were abrogated and responsibilities transferred to the Israeli official in charge, who could enact new orders where and when needed.
The staff officer for archaeology (SOA) in the Israeli Civil Administration is the Israeli army officer in charge of archaeology in the occupied West Bank. This official has a free hand to conduct excavations, confiscate land and transfer objects throughout the West Bank without oversight by anyone in the occupation authority.
As a result, hundreds of excavations in the occupied Palestinian territory have been authorized, yet no one knows where these excavations were taking place or the whereabouts of the finds.
Under the 1995 PLO-Israel Interim Agreements, known as the Oslo Accords, the Palestinian Authority took over responsibility for archaeology in Areas A and B, representing about 40% of the occupied Palestinian territories, and for the first time, they could control part of their own cultural heritage.
Powers and responsibilities over archaeology in certain parts of Area C were to be transferred to Palestinian institutions with the goal of eventually including all of the West Bank and Gaza in a later stage, but this arrangement has never been implemented and all excavations in Area C – which covers more than 60% of the West Bank – have been conducted under SOA orders.
According to archeologist Rafi Greenberg, overall, some “1,100 excavation permits were issued for digs ... at 700 sites in the West Bank, not including east Jerusalem,” and were largely commenced without documentation of any kind, which exists for only approximately 15% of digs. Consequently, he describes Israel’s behavior in the territories as “an archaeological heart of darkness.”
Archaeology has been – and continues to be – used as a pretext for the procurement of territory, and the presence of archaeological or biblical sites is used to justify confiscating Palestinian lands and building illegal settlements.
Examples abound, including the construction of a road leading to the illegal settlement outpost of Migron, which was based on the licensing of an archaeological dig. Meanwhile, the confiscation of land next to the Palestinian village of Susiya al-Qadime was implemented on the pretext of archaeological digs, and a settlement established nearby and a fourth-century synagogue were uncovered by Israeli excavations in the 1970s.
Another example is the forbidding of Palestinians from accessing the Ein Al-Kis freshwater spring near the village of Nabi Saleh, on the unfounded grounds that it is an archaeological site. When petitioned, the Israeli High Court together with an attorney from the rights group Yesh Din noted, “The authorities are using archaeological claims as an excuse to prevent the petitioners from accessing their lands – based on considerations that have nothing to do with archaeology.”
Department of antiquities
The Palestinian Department of Antiquities, established in 1994, took over all archaeological responsibilities for areas A and B in the occupied Palestinian territories.
The department adopted the Jordanian Antiquities Law as a temporary legal instrument since the Palestinian Authority lacked legislation in this area.
However, in the 25 years since, the Palestinians have amended the Jordanian Antiquities Law due to the invalidity of many of its provisions, especially with regard to the clause of penalties, punishments and setting of a legal framework to protect Palestinian heritage. Plus, there has also been a sense of urgency in aiming to protect local heritage in the face of Israeli expansion in the West Bank.
In 2018, teams from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities (MoTA) – together with technical and financial support from UNESCO and the Swedish government – proposed a new version of the legislation, resulting in Law No. 11/2018 on Tangible Cultural Heritage in Palestine, which entered into force in June 2018.
The new law provides a comprehensive set of provisions on the protection, management and promotion of Palestinian tangible cultural heritage.
Law No. 11 expands the time frame of heritage protection to all structures built before 1917 A.D., whereas the previous legislation had limited the protection time frame to heritage only dating back to before 1700 A.D. Moreover, the new law sets forth another framework by virtue of which protection provided to the elements of tangible cultural heritage may be expanded if these elements are of a cultural, economic or natural value. A comprehensive national inventory of all tangible cultural heritage in Palestine will also be established under this law.
The new heritage protection legislation adheres to UNESCO conventions in the field of culture ratified by Palestine, namely the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage and the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two protocols.
Israeli archaeological activity is intended to prove and to strengthen the historical, religious and cultural affinity of the Jewish people and the State of Israel in the occupied Palestinian territories in an attempt to appropriate history and efface the heritage and historical narratives of other peoples and cultures.
Israel continues to use its position as the administrator of archaeological sites in the West Bank as a means to deepen its control over West Bank territories, to expand the settlement enterprise and extend the policy of dispossessing Palestinians from their lands and cultural assets.
In 1981, Israel Harel, one of the founders of the Yesha Council (an umbrella organization of municipal councils of the Jewish settlements), and its chairman at the time sent a memorandum to the Ministry of Education. Zevulun Orlev, the chief of staff of the Education Ministry’s office, saw fit to forward it to the office of then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
In the memorandum, Harel proposed a series of actions to be taken by Israel at archaeological sites in the occupied Palestinian territories in order to “ensure that the Jewish people are in control of the sites which embody its history, its memories and the most obvious and direct testament to its roots and right to the land.”
Israel has been working since the early days of occupation to realize the two objectives mentioned in the memorandum: namely, physical control over archaeological sites and discoveries, as well as the appropriation of the narrative of the whole of the Palestinian territories and their heritage.
Israel’s archaeological policy in the West Bank has been carried out under legal cover and authorization through the use of archaeological pretexts that conceal or legitimize its illegal takeover.
This policy constitutes a violation of international law and the cultural rights of the Palestinians as a people, as it appropriates cultural and heritage assets from the occupied territory and transfers them to Israeli control.
Archaeology is exploited by Israel to deepen the Jewish-Israeli foothold in the occupied Palestinian territories and to blur the Palestinians' connection to their land and their history, aiming to create a fake historical narrative by Judaizing Palestinian antiquities and historical monuments in major Palestinian cities, such as Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem and Nablus, as well as Acre, Jaffa and Tiberias – which have not been spared from this process.
Archaeological theft and the violation of Palestinian heritage sites are some of the biggest and most dangerous challenges facing Palestinians seeking to preserve their culture and physical presence in their homeland, which is threatened by Judaization and targeted by systematic Israeli policies.
Israel must be held accountable for its egregious war on Palestinian heritage and its attempts to appropriate Palestinian history and pillage historical artifacts that are an integral part of Palestinian and world history.
*Palestinian author, researcher and freelance journalist; recipient of two prizes from the Palestinian Union of Writers
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