Dialogue between Israeli and Palestinian Archaeologists

Forum for Cross-border Research

Despite the provisional end to the Middle East peace process a few years ago, which put paid to official co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists, some 50 archaeologists from both sides of the divide have decided to continue the dialogue. Joseph Croitoru reports

photo: dpa
Dedicated to dialogue and in search of archaeological finds: Israeli archaeologists discover Herod's Temple and his burial place near Jerusalem

​​The original intention was to address the key issue of co-operation in the field of archaeology in the concluding phase of peace negotiations. Given the premature end to the peace process, this never happened. The Israelis have been using and continue to use the political vacuum in order to undertake an increasing number of archaeological digs both in the West Bank and in and around Jerusalem without consulting the Palestinians.

Israeli politicians support these digs, which are not only financed and initiated to a great extent by ultranationalist forces, but also presents the Palestinians with a fait accompli.

However, a group of Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists has been actively opposed to this approach for several years now. Approximately 50 of them have established an independent discussion forum that seeks to revive co-operation between experts on both sides and to discuss fundamental issues relating to cross-border archaeological research. After lengthy negotiations they jointly approved a declaration that they are now using to show politicians on both sides that amicable co-operation is indeed possible, at least among experts.

Israel and Palestine: an integral archaeological landscape

The declaration made by the group of Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists is revolutionary in a number of ways. The first radical aspect is the fact that the introduction to the declaration states that Israel and Palestine constitute an integral archaeological landscape that has been artificially divided by the prevailing political situation alone.

The declaration goes on to say that this political divide must be overcome within the framework of a future peace accord, whereby each side should be allowed to keep all archaeological sites on their own territory, regardless of whether the sites are Jewish, Christian, or Islamic. The willingness of the Israeli archaeologists in the forum to return not only all archaeological finds that have been excavated in the occupied Palestinian territories since 1967, but also all the corresponding files documenting the course of work at these excavation sites in the event of the signing of a peace accord is laudable.

The Old Quarter of Jerusalem

It is also a blow to Israeli politics. Up until recently, the academic documentation of these finds was kept under lock and key by the Israelis. It was only made available to the Israeli-Palestinian archaeological forum when a member of the forum obtained a court order for their release.

photo: AP
Bone of contention: who are the rightful owners of the world-famous Dead Sea Scrolls?

​​The Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists also addressed the most controversial archaeological question of all, namely what should happen to the Old Quarter of Jerusalem and the surrounding area. In one of the most important paragraphs of their declaration, they call for a so-called "Joint Heritage Zone" in and around the Old Quarter of Jerusalem. This also includes important excavation sites far outside the old city walls.

The declaration also calls for all archaeological activities within this zone to be monitored and co-ordinated by a UNESCO observer. This would effectively make the site international, a proposal that is anathema to the Israeli establishment.

Unpolitically political

It is no surprise, therefore, that the Israeli Archaeological Authority has already heavily criticised the declaration. Some of its highest-ranking representatives have protested against the plan to internationalise the archaeological sites in the area in and around Jerusalem.

Critics say that the conciliatory archaeologists' attempts to take archaeology out of the political realm has already failed because the proposal to establish a joint Israeli-Palestinian archaeological zone around Jerusalem is in itself highly political.

Moreover, the archaeologists proposal to return to the Palestinians the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the occupied territories after 1967, which provide information about Messianic Judaism in the late biblical period, has been roundly rejected by the Archaeology Authority, despite the fact that researchers using the scrolls only use digitalised copies thereof because of the fragile state of the scrolls. They argue that the Dead Sea Scrolls are part of Jewish history and should therefore belong to the Jews alone.

Joseph Croitoru

© Qantara.de 2008

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan


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