Palestine’s Cultural Property and the Israeli Occupation

Report by Negotiations Affairs Department/ Ramallah/

From Jericho, the oldest city still inhabited, to the first place of religious pilgrimage in Jerusalem, Palestine’s geography has many of the world’s richest archeological sites. Palestine’s historical and cultural heritage is a source of national pride that has molded the country’s national, cultural, social, and economic identity. The Israeli occupation does not only deny Palestine’s cultural potential and other resources but has weaponized archeology as a political tool to normalize its occupation, annexation plans, looting of artifacts,  and an extremist Zionist religious-fundamentalist and historically erroneous narrative.

The State of Palestine recognizes around 7,000 archeological sites in its territory[2], of which over half are located in areas under full Israeli control[3]. This includes over 200 sites taken over by illegal colonial-settlements and other 1,000 sites either damaged or destroyed due to Israel’s illegal annexation wall[4].

This document provides an overview of how Israel, the occupying power, uses archeology to advance its illegal colonial-settlement enterprise and annexation plans to continue denying Palestine’s potential. It flags the critical role the international community can lead to putting an end to the systematic denial of Palestinian national and human rights.

From a Baptismal Font to the Dead Sea Scrolls

In the early hours of 20 July 2020, the residents of the historical Palestinian town of Tuqu’, east of Bethlehem City, woke up from an Israeli incursion. This time though, it was not about arresting people or demolishing another Palestinian home. Instead, it was to steal a Byzantine baptismal font dating back to the VI century. Teqoa is located near the Herodion Mountain (Tel Ferdies) and is mentioned in the Bible. The baptismal font is one of its most important archeological artifacts yet the Israeli occupation, through its archeological unit in charge of their works in the occupied West Bank, took the font from the village to the illegal settlement of Mishor Adumim.

The Byzantine baptismal font of Tuqu’ was not the first archeological artifact stolen by Israel from the occupied West Bank. While some of the stolen artifacts have been kept in the occupied territory (like in the illegal settlement of Mishor Adumin), most pieces have been moved outside of the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) in violation of Israel’s obligations under international law. It is estimated that between 1967 and 1992, Israel removed around 200,000 artifacts per year from oPt, with the figure going down to an annual number of approximately 120,000 since 1995[5]. Such artifacts are not just those who had already been excavated before the start of the occupation in 1967, but the result of ongoing excavations that, in many cases, have destroyed the respective sites.

Israel’s Antiquities Authority is one of the leading Israeli organizations involved in the looting of such artifacts. With its headquarters in occupied East Jerusalem and enjoying privileged international relations, including being one of the Israeli benefiters of the EU’s Horizon 2020 program[6], their archeological survey includes all of historic Palestine and the occupied Arab Syrian Golan[7]. This includes their appropriation of the “Dead Sea Scrolls”[8], discovered before 1967 at Qumran’s archeological site, on the shores of the Dead Sea. Today Qumran is controlled by the Israeli Parks Authority[9], which charges an entry fee of around 8 dollars for an average of 3,000 daily visitors[10], mainly Christian pilgrims. UNESCO, however, recognizes Qumran as a Palestinian site[11].

 

Forcible Acquisition of Land and Forcible Displacement 

On 30 June 2019, the Trump envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt and US ambassador to Israel David Friedman participated in a ceremony at the so-called “City of David” that included hammering down an old wall to inaugurate a settler archeological project[12].  The event represented a further recognition by the current US administration of Israel’s illegal annexation of occupied East Jerusalem, this time through a project funded mainly by US-based donors for a settler organization that works with the Israeli Jerusalem Municipality and the Israeli government[13].

The “City of David” represents the ultimate Israeli use of archeology for political purposes, violating Palestinian rights and under full governmental support[14]. The organizations behind such projects are involved in other dangerous steps, including their claims over church property in Jaffa Gate[15] through the settler group Ateret Cohanim, to erase the Palestinian presence, identity, and history of occupied Jerusalem. The “City of David”, ran by the Elad settler group, represents a prominent example of how archeology is used to normalize and deepen Israel’s unlawful annexation of Jerusalem; including with visits by dozens of foreign diplomats invited by Israeli counterparts[16]. With regards to the “City of David” project, in particular, the 2014 EU Heads of Missions Report on Jerusalem stated that this project represents a “wider strategy to consolidate Israeli control over the Historic Basin by creating an exclusively Jewish tourism trail along and around the Old City, detaching it from the Palestinian surroundings and advocating a singular Jewish narrative”[17].

There are other examples involving the displacement of Palestinians under the pretext of “archeology”, including in the village of Nabi Samwel to the north of Jerusalem. It is located on one of the highest mountains in Jerusalem governorate and contains the shrine of Prophet Samwel within the only mosque in the village. After 1967, the Israeli occupation demolished the original village and pushed the residents to a nearby area. Israel later declared the area a national park. Today only 200 Palestinians live in the village because of the numerous illegal Israeli policies which target the village and its residents[18].

The biblical site of “Tel Shilo” (Khirbet Seiloun) near Nablus is another key example of how archeology is used to loot more Palestinian land, preventing Palestinian access while developing the place into a major touristic attraction for the benefit of Israeli settlers[19]. Several foreign delegations, including senior US politicians, have been taken to this place by extremist Zionist organizations[20] as part of Israel’s campaign to promote the annexation of further lands belonging to the State of Palestine,

In September of this year, the Israeli occupying forces seized two important archeological sites in the northern West Bank: Deir Samaan and Khirbet Deir and Deir Qalaa[21], promoted by settlers as “Israel’s balcony” for tourism purposes[22]. Close to that location is the historical Palestinian town of Sabastiya, where the archeological site and historic ruins are under Israeli control. [23]

Palestinian Sites are Left Undeveloped

Israel’s colonial occupation has been preventing the development of important archeological sites in Palestine, including Sabastiya,  parts of the World Heritage Sites of Battir (and the Makhrour Valley), the Old City of Hebron, the forest of Um er-Rihan (Jenin), Wadi Khureiton (Bethlehem), Tell er Ras / Jabal Gerizim (Nablus), the Church of Saint Barbara in Aboud, and Nabi Musa nearby Jericho.

In parallel, Israel has profited from the control of Palestinian archeological and touristic sites. According to a 2014 World Bank study, the five archeological/touristic sites in oPt that bring the most economic profits to Israel (excluding occupied East Jerusalem) are Qumran, Ein Fashkha, Herodion, Ein Fara (Wadi Qelt), and the “Good Samaritan” site[24] located on the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

The Theft Of Palestine’s Cultural Property as a Strategic Goal of the Occupying Power

In February 2010, the Israeli government adopted the “National Heritage Sites Project” to strengthen what it calls “the connection of the Jewish people to the land of Israel”. Benjamin Netanyahu then stated, “we will rehabilitate archaeological and Zionist heritage sites. We will build and enrich archives and museums. We are talking about approximately 150 sites”[25].  Several of the sites in the list are located inside occupied Palestine, including Qumran (Dead Sea), Susya (Hebron), Herodion/Jebel Al Furdeis (Bethlehem), Tel Shiloh/ Khirbet Seiloun (Nablus), Qiryat Sefer/Khirbet Bad-Issa (west of Ramallah), The Biar Aqueduct (North of Jerusalem / Ramallah), the “Jerusalem Walls National Park and the City of David” (occupied East Jerusalem), and Rachel’s Tomb / Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque (Bethlehem).

The program includes funds from the State of Israel and organizations such as the Jewish National Fund[26] . It is being used in the ongoing efforts to legitimize the annexation of Palestinian lands.

Normalizing Occupation: The Imposition of Israel’s Zionist Narrative

Israel’s control over our historic and archeological sites and promoting them as part of its tourists sites aims at normalizing Israel’s occupation of Palestine to serve the Israeli government and its supporters. In addition to referring to Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, and other locations in occupied East Jerusalem, as part of “Israel”, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism promotes different itineraries that link the political use of archeology with its intent to further annex Palestinian lands, including “A tour of the Gush”, featuring illegal colonial settlements in the western and southern Bethlehem areas[27]. International travel companies often advertise these settlement sites[28].

Israeli politicians have endorsed such settlement projects to advance the support of extreme religious  fundamentalists, including   “Christian Zionists”[29]. The Trump Administration, a leading supporter of Israel’s annexation policies, took several steps to facilitate the funding and recognition of such organizations, including the so-called “Ariel University”[30], located in the illegal colonial-settlement of Ariel, that has developed a department for archeological studies[31]. Among such efforts was the visit made in 2019 by Benjamin Netanyahu alongside radical US politicians and religious extremists to the site known as “Tel Shilo” (Khirbet Seiloun), inside the illegal settlement of Shilo, whereby he referred to the place as “Israel’s first capital”: “Under the heritage plan, we established here a visitor center so that every Jew and every tourist in Israel can come and see our first capital”[32]. Similar visits by Netanyahu and other Israeli ministers have taken place to other archeological sites in the occupied West Bank[33].

Conclusion

The exploitation of historical sites and the use of archaeology to create a false narrative represents one of the most dangerous tools used by the Israeli occupation to normalize and entrench its illegal occupation of Palestine. It is clear that Israel is pushing a distorted political narrative about archeology to further encourage religious fundamentalism and consolidate its illegal colonial settlement enterprise.

The Palestinian people have the right to self-determination, including the right to pursue their economic, social, and cultural development freely. We also have the right to cultural life just like any other nation.

In this context, all stolen artifacts must be returned, and Palestinians must have full control over their land, including these sites. This includes respecting the cultural heritage, traditions, and the historic Status Quo of the Holy Sites according to Palestine’s obligations and the possibility of restoring and improving access to those places, including through international cooperation such as Palestine’s UNESCO membership. The restoration of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem is a prominent example of Palestine’s efforts in that direction.

Meanwhile, the international community must hold Israel accountable for its violations, including not accepting any promotion of sites in occupied Palestine as being “part of Israel” or cooperating with complicit institutions and organizations. Last October, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 called upon “all States to discourage the promotion of tourism and emigration to the Israeli settlements”[34].

Countries should ensure that their museums, universities, and other related institutions are not displaying artifacts taken from Palestine by Israel. This should include preventing cooperation with organizations behind such efforts, including the Israeli Antiquities Authority and other related Israeli authorities. In this context, tourism and archeological guidelines are required to ensure that all parties understand the implications and responsibilities of collaborating with the theft of Palestinian archeological sites and artifacts and in entrenching and strengthening the occupying power, Israel, and its illegal practices against the land and people of Palestine.