The WAC Accusation of Israeli Destruction of Archaeological Sites

From: Dr. Uzi Dahari
Deputy Director
Israel Antiquities Authority
January 2004


To: President, World Archaeological Congress
Department of Archaeology
Flinders University
Adelaide, South Australia

Dear Dr. Smith,

Subject: The WAC Accusation of Israeli Destruction of  Archaeological Sites

    I have read your e-mail media release dated 7 January 2004 addressed to the world archaeological community at the conclusion of the Fifth Archaeological Conference held in June, 2003, at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in which Israel stands accused of destroying archaeological sites. I refer, as well; to the accusations at the Congress by Dr. Najat el-Hafi that appear to have influenced the Congress’ decision concerning Israel’s “destruction” of Palestinian antiquities, an unacceptable one-sided judgment not worthy of the WAC.

    As to the matter itself: The concept of separate Israeli (Jewish) and Palestinian (Muslim) archaeological cultural heritage is an unknown concept to me as an Israeli archaeologist. The cultural heritage of the Land of the Bible is common to all past and present groups, religions, nations, and tribes in the area, or to those that look upon this land as being holy to three monotheistic religions. From the aspect of cultural heritage, Tel Shechem (Nablus) and Tel el-Jib (both within Palestinian Authority), and Tel Megiddo or Tel Beersheba (both within the bounds of the State of Israel) are of equal importance to me as an Israeli, and I believe to Dr. Najat as well. By the same token, the Ottoman palace of Mohammed Bek Abdul-Hadi in Nablus is as important a cultural heritage site to both Israelis and Palestinians. Cultural heritage should not be confused with territorial conflicts.

    Concerning Israeli observance of the 1954 Hague Convention, I would like to remind you and the entire archaeological community, that the only country in the world which returned antiquities to a neighboring country, as required by the Convention, is Israel. In 1994 Israel returned to Egypt all of the antiquities from Israeli salvage excavations in the Sinai Peninsula, up to the last pottery shard! It was my honor to head that project. The antiquities were returned in excellent condition and meticulous order accompanied by scientific reports and the required drawings. This was not only because we are signatories to the Hague convention, but also due to the fact that we respect the cultural heritage of the Sinai and recognize that the proper place for those antiquities is in Sinai.

    In your media release you claimed that, between the years 1967 to 1973, the Israel Antiquities Authority excavated in Nablus and other West Bank sites. This is patently untrue! The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) is charged with the enforcement of the Israeli Law of Antiquities, which is applicable in only areas where Israeli law is in force. The IAA only determines archaeological policy, and issues excavation licenses within the borders of Israel. Israel has not applied its own laws to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The existing laws in those areas are the Jordanian law (in the West Bank) and the Egyptian law (in the Gaza Strip). Therefore, until the transfer of responsibility in Nablus to the Palestinian Authority, the person responsible for enforcing Jordanian law was the Archaeological Staff Officer appointed by the Civil Administration. That body—an arm of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)–is legally responsible for the civilian matters in those territories. The Archaeological Staff Officer is not subordinate to nor a part of the IAA. Over the years, the Archaeological Staff Office did indeed conduct many salvage excavations in Nablus and its surroundings due to its flourishing growth. These excavations are of significant scientific value, having uncovered, inter alia, the Hellenistic city on Mount Gerizim (overlooking Nablus on the south), and the rich heritage of Nablus of the Roman period (Neapolis), as well as the Byzantine and early Islamic periods. The full scientific publication (now in preparation) of these excavations will shed new light on the cultural heritage of Nablus—for Israelis and Palestinians alike and for all those in the world who value science..

On some Arguments Raised in Najat’s Lecture:

    Israeli archaeology is not conducted on behalf of any ideology, nor does it explicitly serve the heritage of the Jewish people on its land. It is pure science for the purpose of studying the past through its archaeological finds. No one can claim that prehistoric excavations by Israelis are meant to serve the Jewish heritage. No one can claim that the Staff Archaeological Officer excavations in Nablus that uncovered the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic city aimed to search for Jewish roots in that city. No Israeli scholar that studied the Samaritan burials and synagogues in the Nablus area claims that these belong to the Jewish nation and religion. It is patently clear to us that these are Samaritan items. No one can claim that the hundreds of Byzantine churches and monasteries uncovered in Israel and in the PA areas in the past fifty years serve the claims of the Jewish people to the land. Science is science is science, and heritage is heritage is heritage; they belong to all.

    Israeli archaeology is not a means to “underline Jewish historical continuity” in Israel, as Dr. Najat contended. I would be surprised to see one scientific paper published by an Israeli with such a claim. I will be happy to refer Dr. Najat to the latest publications by Professor Israel Finkelstein, a respected archaeologist of the Biblical period in Israel, who advocates a significant reduction of the size of the Judean Kingdom. At the same time, I will be happy to refer him to the major archaeological project directed by the late Professor Benjamin Mazar south of the Haram el-Sherif in Jerusalem, where grand palaces built by Umayyad (Muslim) rulers were uncovered. There is no indication of these palaces before their excavation. They did not appear in any written historical source, until the Israeli excavations discovered them.

    I will be happy to refer Dr. Najat to the accepted archaeological terminology in Israel when it was decided to label the periods Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid periods with the term “Early Islamic Period” and not with the term used in the rest of the world, “Early Arab Period”, because Israeli scholars are well aware that an Arab element existed in the Levant, west of the Jordan since Hellenistic times.

    If Dr. Najat had read recent publications by Israeli archaeologists (published also in English) instead of reciting groundless slogans, he would find hundreds of published excavations with strata from Islamic periods, with excavations proving that the pinnacle of church and monastery construction in Israel took place during the Umayyad period under Islamic rule. The IAA is working to change the Law of Antiquities so that the legal definition of “antiquities” will include objects and sites dating from earlier than 1840, and not as in the law today (in effect since the British Mandate), which fixes the date at 1700. The change in this law will give us better tools for preserving sites and finds from the Ottoman period, in which it is universally accepted that the majority of the populations were Arabs.

    Is this what Dr. Najat refers to as archaeology serving Israel’s ideology?

    The purpose of archaeology is to uncover history. Differing interpretation of archaeological sites should not be based upon the researcher’s origins, whether they are Israeli, Palestinian, Australian or others. It may be that the nascent Palestinian archaeology is still somewhat naïve (and this is natural). Israeli archaeology is more mature.

    I agree fully with every word in the concluding paragraph of Dr. Najat’s abstract, with the addition of the underlined words: “The violent events of the last two years in the Palestinian Territories and in the State of Israel, have not only caused irreversible damages to many archaeological and historical sites of intrinsic value, but also shattered hopes for a better definition of the present and the future of the cultural heritage of the Holy Land.”

In Summary:

    The World Archaeological Congress will do well to concentrate on archaeology as a science, and on preserving archaeological and cultural heritage sites. It will also be appreciated were the WAC to sound the alarm for endangered archaeological sites due to armed conflict. But, taking a political position, or providing a stage for only one political position in a conflict, thereby transforming the science of archaeology into a platform for political polemics, is unacceptable. It is clear to every sensible person that “truth” is subjective—each side has its own version. A common cultural heritage of the sons of Abraham—Jews and Arabs—each with divided opinions on the fate of this country, can serve as a lever for fostering peace. A condition for this is that neither side “take possession” of archaeology for its own objectives.


Dr. Uzi Dahari
Deputy Director
Israel Antiquities Authority

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