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Uncovering secrets, preserving history, protecting Palestine: An archeologist’s mission

Jerusalem24 – There are over 10,000 archeological sites in the West Bank, according to estimates by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities – and most of them are in danger of being looted, according to Palestinian and Israeli archeologists.

The Israeli Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage announced on 7 August they were establishing “a special inter-ministerial committee” under the direction of Zeev Elkin, Minister of Jerusalem Affairs and Minister of Housing and Construction, and headed by Nathaniel Isaac, Director General of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, with the aim of “fighting the destruction of antiquities in the West Bank.”

The committee met for the first time in July in order to address “widespread looting and destruction of antiquities” of “Jewish heritage sites” in the West Bank.

“Just last week the heritage site “Ancient Samaria” (Sebastia) was set on fire and burned by Palestinian rioters, and throughout the past year a large number of incidents of destruction of antiquities, looting and burning of various Jewish heritage sites in Judea and Samaria have been documented,” according to the press release by the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage.

Judea and Samaria is the Israeli name for the occupied West Bank.

Ayman Warasneh, Head of Tourism and Antiquities Security Department at Al-Istiqlal University, expresses cynicism at news of the special inter-ministerial committee’s creation.

“You can’t overcome a problem you created in the first place,” he tells Jerusalem24.

A lucrative trade

Israel is the only country that allows trade in archeological artifacts, says Warasneh. There are over 60 antiquities dealerships in Israel licensed by Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), which according to Warasneh account for a trade in hundreds of thousands of artifacts.

This is of course enticing to would-be traders and looters: “There is big money for that market.”

Even though the dealerships are strictly licensed by the IAA, the market itself is not properly regulated.

This, according to Warasneh, is due to a loophole in an Israeli law dating from 1978. “There is a flaw, a crack in that law.”

The Antiquities Law No.27 of 1978 states It is permissible for any object discovered before 1978 to be offered on the market. Objects discovered after 1978 belong to the Israeli authorities, according to Israeli law.

Of course, this leads to the “discovery” of a number of artifacts being backdated to prior 1978.

In fact, “the market is so hot [and] unbelievably big and profitable” that “dealerships and looters and collectors are falsifying pieces now,” with tens of thousands of fake pieces having been found to emerge from the West Bank.

So now, says Warasneh, archeologists find themselves battling two fronts: not only the looting of archeological sites, but also the dissemination of fake pieces of “no scientific value.”

Warasneh is adamant that blame be assigned where it belongs: “Israel is responsible for that, 100% of it.”

“Not just a class issue”

Warasneh tells us there is a “misconception” that looters are poor or uneducated.

“Looters are highly educated,” he asserts. He says they use sophisticated, high-tech tools and heavy machinery for excavation after surveying targeted land in the West Bank.

“It’s all about money, it’s all about business.”

However, reporting by Jerusalem24 has found that a more complex picture emerges when looking at the practice of “treasure digging” in Palestine.

A significant portion of what is called “looting” is in fact villagers digging their lands to look for coins and gold left by Palestinian families on their lands during the Nakba.

Professor Abdullah Kalbuneh, Archeology Director of the Nablus Governorate since 1997, while acknowledging looting is a “huge issue” that needs to be addressed and that artefacts and resources must be protected both through better legislation and “more precautions,” still thinks that people’s socio-economic situation does in fact push them to engage in looting.

“The act of stealing and looting is not exclusive to one group or class – even if richer people may have easier access to machinery.”

“At the same time, there are some Palestinian families who will go without food so that they can afford to buy that machinery in the hope of finding treasure.”

Kalbuneh explains that local stories of villagers uncovering gold and treasure feed into this “fake hope.”

Metal detection equipment is considered a “dual-use” import by Israeli authorities which strictly regulate its entry into the West Bank.

Protecting the narrative

But trading and looting are not the only dangers to Palestine’s archeological heritage, says Warasneh.

There is of course tourism: the comings and goings of so many enthusiastic pairs of feet “damage the chronology” of a site and render it “unreliable” for scientific excavation.

“And there’s the historical narrative,” emphasizes Warasneh.

Beyond the looters – who “take pieces of our story” – there is the rewriting of history by Israelis that Palestinian historians and archeologists have watched unfold before their eyes, with for example the importance of Islamic archeological discoveries played down in favor of Jewish ones.

“Our narrative is the scientific narrative. It’s not based on a book or a bible or something. It’s based on scientific excavations that happen in the field of archeology.”

“Israel has the other thing: Israel has a biblical story. There is a story, and that’s their narrative.”

Warasneh stresses that Palestinian archeologists consider all discoveries equally important in uncovering the history of the region, whether Canaanite, Islamic, Jewish, Christian, or other.

“The more we discover things, the more we uncover secrets, the more we know about our history, the more we know about our archeology.”

Protecting the heritage

The key to addressing the multiple dangers to Palestine’s archeological inheritance lies not only in legislation and enforcement, says Warasneh, but in raising awareness.

The current school curriculum addressing archeology in Palestine “doesn’t rise to the challenge.” The curriculum, says Warasneh, should be created by professors and experts.

Warasneh points to “great programs” of study, conservation, and protection at the archeology and antiquities departments of the universities of Hebron, Birzeit, and An-Najah, who are doing “great work.”

Warasneh hopes younger Palestinians will follow in his and others’ footsteps – and that they will receive the appropriate encouragement and support to do so, both from the government and from society.

“If we have to put our money on something, we need to put it on the new generation.”

Listen to the full interview with Ayman Warasneh on Wake Up Palestine.

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