Archaeologists' Group Proposes Safekeeping of Middle East Artifacts - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


Israeli, Palestinian, and American archaeologists last week unveiled a draft agreement on archaeological and cultural heritage that they hope to see included in a future Middle East peace agreement. 

Presenting their proposal to an audience of archaeologists at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute here, they said it was the first time that Israelis and Palestinians had discussed the fate of thousands of artifacts discovered in the West Bank and Gaza since Israel occupied those territories, in 1967. 

The proposal was presented to Palestinian archaeologists last summer. 

"We were not trying to conduct negotiations on a final settlement, but to set out items for future discussion in the peace talks," said David Ilan, director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology, at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in Jerusalem. He was one of the Israeli participants. 

The draft is the result of five years of secret work by the Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group, comprising Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists who met for talks in London, Vienna, and Jerusalem. 

The issue is so sensitive that of the nine participants, two remain anonymous. 

The five-page draft agreement has been presented to Israeli and Palestinian leaders, United Nations officials, and the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is now a Middle East peace envoy. It calls for Israel to repatriate all items excavated in the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinians except for those with "deep symbolic value," which should remain on loan to Israel. The group also urges both sides to respect and preserve archaeological sites on both sides of any new border. 

Regarding Jerusalem, the group proposes a special "heritage zone" to safeguard the city's "unique archaeological heritage." 

The archaeologists say both sides "hold special responsibility to preserve the archaeological heritage of Jerusalem, as its significance extends far beyond national borders." 

The group has compiled the first publicly accessible computer-mapped database of more than 6,000 archaeological and heritage sites in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, locations that had previously been kept secret by the Israeli occupation administration. 

A heated debate erupted at the Jerusalem meeting when Shuka Dorfman, director general of the Israel Antiquities Authority, criticized the group for what he called its secrecy and its political tendencies. 

"I agree with almost everything in this document," he said. "I have no problem with dialogue. It's very important. It's essential. But not when it becomes political. This is politicization of archaeology." 

Ran Boytner, director of international programs at the University of California at Los Angeles's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, rejected Mr. Dorfman's criticism. Mr. Boytner and Lynn Swartz Dodd, curator of the Archaeological Research Collection at the University of Southern California, started the working group and secured money for its activities. 

"What is the role of archaeology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?" said Mr. Boytner. "We didn't politicize archaeology; we tried to solve a political problem affecting archaeology." 

"My hope is that when there will be a final peace agreement, that this document will serve as the foundation to build the archaeological chapter," he said. 

Under the 1993-94 Oslo Accords, Israel ceded control of archaeological sites in territory handed over to the Palestinian Authority, with the exception of an ancient synagogue in Jericho and Joseph's Tomb, in Nablus. Both of those sites were seized by Palestinian militants at the start of the intifada uprising in 2000. 

Under the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, Israel returned all archaeological artifacts discovered in the Sinai Peninsula, as required by the 1954 Hague Convention. 

Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who oversaw that process, said he favored a similar deal with the Palestinians but warned that many of the items returned in 1979 were now inaccessible and had effectively been lost to science. He also described the legal position as more complicated than the Egyptian model. "If we are to return the artefacts to the Palestinians, which I personally favour," he said, "then it will be a matter of negotiation, not of law."
Section: International
Volume 54, Issue 32, Page A40 

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.