Israeli authorities charged with safeguarding cultural sites are now led by far-right Jewish settlers

Jeff Wright

Mondoweiss  /  March 25, 2023

The Israel Antiquities Authority, led now by a member of Ben Gvir’s far-right Jewish Power Party, is expected to advance settlement expansion and de facto annexation.

There are an estimated 6000 antiquity sites in the West Bank. “Practically in every village or town there are archeological remains of varying scale from a watering hole to a multilayered mound,” according to Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO that works “to defend cultural heritage rights and to protect ancient sites as public assets that belong to members of all communities, faiths and peoples.”

In its March newsletter, Emek Shaveh describes how changes in Israel’s 37th government threaten these sites as authorities in charge of safeguarding Israel’s heritage are consolidated under far-right settler extremists.

“In a climate of heightened political emergency and a constant fear of violent conflagration,” Emek Shaveh writes, “one can be forgiven for overlooking heritage related developments. However, in this area too, we are watching with concern.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority, the government body charged to oversee the country’s antiquities, has been moved from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Heritage, led now by Amichai Eliyahu, a member of Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power Party. His appointment and other changes, Emek Shaveh writes, signify “another step towards the extreme politicization of the authority.” 

For example, The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, signed by Israel in 1954, prohibits the removal of cultural assets from an occupied territory. But, Emek Shaveh writes, “In an unusual step, the Israel Antiquities Authority not only confessed that it was excavating in the West Bank it also announced that the finds from the dig would be displayed in a museum inside the green line….” 

Of further concern, Emek Shaveh reports that archeological camps have been used both to expand West Bank settlements and start new ones, effecting further de facto annex of West Bank land.

Asked by Mondoweiss to comment on the report, Emek Shaveh’s Executive Director Alon Arad said, “Most of Israel’s archaeological activity in the Occupied Territories is by definition an act of physical, historical and cultural appropriation, designed to deepen Israel’s hold on land while ignoring the Palestinian communities.”

Emek Sheveh’s report explains how the Shiloh settlement, established in 1978, began as an archeological dig at Tel Shiloh-Khirbet on the lands of the West Bank Palestinian village of Qaryut. Describing the dig that reveals evidence of settlement going back 4,000 years, a 2017 report produced by Emek Shaveh and Yesh Din—an Israeli NGO that defends the human rights of Palestinians living in the West Bank—concludes: 

“The site’s story embodies the essence of [their] report: from the seizing of the site’s lands and the expulsion of the Palestinian land owners who once lived there and cultivated the land, through ceding the management of the site to settler organizations which curate the visitor’s experience in accordance with their ideology, and finally to developing it as an unusual touristic and commercial site, while irreversibly damaging the archaeological tel (the archeological layers) and the antiquities within it.”

“Even if a camp does not include turning the site into a settlement,” Emek Shaveh says, “the establishment of a camp is a means of laying hold to an area and displacing Palestinians from their land.” The March report continues, “It goes without saying that once a camp is established, military presence is needed to guard the Israelis staying on site. We can assume that this trend will only intensify under the current Minister of Heritage.”

According to Emek Shaveh’s Arad, “Intensifying archaeological activities in the Occupied Territories also highlights the fundamental contradiction inherent in conducting archaeological-scientific work that is enabled by military force.”

“It is our assessment,” Arad said, “that the new Minister of Heritage will politicize heritage even further and sacrifice the remains of archaeological professionalism on the altar of annexation. The archaeological community in Israel must take stock of this situation. It must consider the boundaries of what is professionally and ethically legitimate and face the implications of the fact that archaeology has become a principal justification for occupation and the violation of human rights.”

Emek Shaveh ended their newsletter with “some good news,” reporting that the United States repatriated an Iron Age ivory cosmetic spoon to the Palestinian Authority (PA). CNN reported on the looted antiquity’s return during an official ceremony on January 6 at the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Bethlehem.

The U.S.’s first-ever return of a looted artifact to the PA followed the spoon’s recovery because of a multinational criminal investigation by the Manhattan D.A.’s office.

Chief of the US Office of Palestinian Affairs, George Noll said the repatriation is “a historic moment between the American and Palestinian people and a demonstration of our belief in the power of cultural exchanges in building mutual understanding, respect and partnership.” 

Palestinian Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Rula Maayah summed up the tireless work of Emek Shaveh and others committed to preserving the cultural heritage of Palestinians when she said at the ceremony that the spoon “acquires its real scientific and archeological value” when returned to the site of its discovery.

Jeff Wright is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)