Annexation in the name of archeology

Alon Arad & Talya Ezrahi

+972 Magazine  /  August 1, 2023

Armed with huge budgets, far-right Israeli ministers are pushing ahead with plans to displace Palestinians under the guise of safeguarding heritage sites.

On July 17, the Israeli government approved a NIS 120 million plan to “salvage, preserve, develop, and prevent antiquity theft at heritage sites in Judea, Samaria, and the Jordan Valley.” This comes on the heels of an announcement in May that the government would be investing NIS 32 million in the development of the historic site of Sebastia in the northern West Bank. Together, these plans deliver on a coalition promise to the Otzma Yehudit party — led by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir — to allocate NIS 150 million for “safeguarding” Jewish heritage in the West Bank.

Moreover, on Jerusalem Day in May, the government announced an allocation of nearly NIS 200 million for the Western Wall Tunnels and development at settler-controlled archaeological sites in East Jerusalem (such as the City of David archaeological park), bringing the coming years’ total known investment in Jewish heritage sites over the Green Line to a record NIS 340 million.

These plans come against the backdrop of a five-year campaign orchestrated by an offshoot of the far-right settler group Regavim called Shomrim al Hanetzach (Guardians of Eternity), which has been accusing the Palestinians of intentionally destroying antiquities. Over the past few years, the campaign has succeeded in securing millions of shekels of government funding for surveillance and obstruction of Palestinian development in or near ancient sites. 

While antiquity theft and destruction is a problem in the West Bank, as it is in the region as a whole, presenting it as a justification for the so-called national emergency plan announced last month is clearly a ruse. Less than 10 percent of the NIS 120 million budgeted for the plan will be used to combat antiquity theft and destruction, whereas NIS 80 million is earmarked for tourism development and infrastructure, including educational programs to raise awareness of the sites’ significance among the (Jewish) public, roads and transportation, signage, and a site that will serve as a “heritage house” or museum for antiquities from the West Bank. The plan also includes an initiative to develop between four and seven sites that will serve as “anchors” or focal points for Jewish tourism in the area.

Archaeology has had a special role in the Zionist nation-building enterprise since Israel’s beginnings. Seminal figures such as Yigael Yadin — the IDF’s Chief of Staff during the state’s formative years, and later the deputy prime minister — had a passion for archaeology informed by a desire to anchor contemporary Zionism in a biblical past. As early as the 1970s, historian Amos Elon famously wrote that “Israeli archaeologists are not merely digging for knowledge and objects, but for a reassurance of their roots.”  

Over the past 25 years, however, the Israeli passion for biblical archaeology has been refashioned by the settler right into an archaeology anchored in biblical literalism, and used as a central justification for the settlement enterprise in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. In the drive to prove Jewish precedence from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, heritage sites have now become weaponized. 

In the process, antiquities are selectively preserved and displayed to create a Judeo-centric story of belonging while the Palestinians are completely erased from the historical narrative. Accordingly, Jews are portrayed as the indigenous people of the region while Palestinians are rendered an itinerant mass intent on destroying evidence of a Jewish past and stealing the land from its rightful owners. This is the narrative used to efface Palestinian ties to heritage sites, delegitimize their claims to the land, and displace them from their homes and agricultural territories. 

A taste of things to come 

There are over 6,000 known archaeological sites in the West Bank, a testament to the multiple civilizations and cultures that have flourished in this land throughout human history. This multiplicity of sites is a blessing for archaeology but a curse for Palestinians, as it has given the settlers and the government an opportunity to develop sites throughout the West Bank at strategic locations, which will function both as physical strongholds in Palestinian space and as curated thematic edifices to Jewish cultural and historic supremacy. 

The image of the Palestinians as a rootless people who care nothing about heritage is another settler construct, and Sebastia is an instructive example. Tel Sebastia, an archaeological site located northwest of the city of Nablus, is identified with the ancient city of Samaria (Shomron), the capital of the Kingdom of Israel in 9-8 BCE. It also features unique remains from the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Muslim, and Crusader periods. Some of the sites from the latter periods are situated within the Palestinian village of Sebastia, which is adjacent to the tel (archaeological mound). 

The tel itself is in Area C, which is under full Israeli control, while the village of Sebastia is located in Area B, which is under joint Israeli and Palestinian control. For centuries the people of Sebastia have preserved and cherished the ruins in the tel and those within the village, which is a model example of how to weave a conservation approach into the fabric of village life. The site has been a major source of livelihood for the villagers, who run restaurants and souvenir shops, and work as tourist guides at the site. Conservation initiatives undertaken by Sebastia municipality and overseen by UNESCO have resulted in a locally-led professional conservation and management plan for the site, which has also been placed on the Tentative List of World Heritage Sites as a Palestinian site. 

But the Israeli right cannot accept that the Palestinians too have historic claims to the land, nor can it recognize their right to manage their heritage sites. Over the past few years, settlers have begun showing up in greater numbers at Tel Sebastia, accompanied by the army. On several occasions the army has ordered the removal of the Palestinian flag placed at the entrance to the site, even though it is in Area B. The Israeli government’s plan for Sebastia that it unveiled in May is basically a declaration of its intent to take the site away from the villagers who call it home, and to sever them from their heritage, land, and livelihood.  

The case of Sebastia is a taste of things to come. With a government in which Otzma Yehudit and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party hold key ministries in the fields of heritage — Amichai Eliyahu is the heritage minister and Smotrich himself oversees the Civil Administration, which includes an archaeology position — there is no one and nothing to stop a wholesale process of taking over large expanses of the West Bank in the name of heritage. 

Indeed, Eliyahu spelled out this very intention when he first assumed the ministry, when he wrote: “Heritage on both sides of the Green Line will receive full protection … the pinnacle will be protection of heritage assets of the land of the bible and the eternal people.” 

Antiquity sites can be used to shape a powerful story that penetrates the hearts and minds of those who visit them. When presented as physical evidence of a national or religious story, especially in the context of a struggle over land, visitors are encouraged to draw a political connection. Today, heritage has become, along with the legalization of outposts and settlement expansion, one of the major means to advance annexation of Palestinian land.

The fact that this is being done in the name of archaeology and the safeguarding of heritage is an ethical stain on the field of archaeology in Israel. Archaeologists from major Israeli universities who work at sites in East Jerusalem and the West Bank can no longer ignore their complicity in the process of weaponizing heritage. It is time for the Israeli archaeological community as a whole to take stock and take a clear ethical and moral stand: silence is no longer an option.

Alon Arad is an archaeologist and the executive director of Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO working to defend cultural heritage rights and to protect ancient sites as public assets that belong to members of all communities, faiths and peoples.

Talya Ezrahi is the international relations coordinator at Emek Shaveh