“Looting the Holy Land" or Pillaging the Truth?

This is a piece of political propaganda, aimed – as the bon ton goes today – at de-legitimizing Israel.

By Israel Finkelstein
Tel Aviv University
December 2010

Let me start out by stating the very obvious: This is a piece of political propaganda, aimed – as the bon ton goes today – at de-legitimizing Israel. The viewer must keep sight of the fact that the film was produced by the Arab TV network al-Jazeera. So rather than give a general statement, I wish to demonstrate – point by point – why this is a worthless film, ridden with manipulations, political propaganda, incorrect facts and even lies.

1. The creators of the film has no intention of being balanced. The Israeli side is represented only by anti-establishment archaeologists. Not a single scholar with an opposing point of view was interviewed. And while the Palestinian Director of Antiquities speaks in the film, not a single Israeli official (e.g., from the Israel Antiquities Authority) appears. This should come as no surprise; it fits the notion of pluralism and free speech in the Arab World.

2. At times the film, intentionally or unintentionally, resorts to anti-Semitic stereotypes, in which Israelis are shown either as religious settlers or as soldiers carrying guns. Then comes the cliché: The Palestinians are the true people of the land: peace loving farmers riding donkeys in beautiful fields with romantic flute music playing in the background.

3. Let the truth be known: Most of the looting in the West Bank (as well as in Israel!) has been carried out by Palestinians. In addition, the viewer should remember that since the 1993 Oslo agreement about 50% of the West Bank has been administered by the Palestinian Authority. If looting there continues, it is being done under Palestinian rule.

4. From the point of view of international law, the West Bank and Gaza are contested territories. To differ from Israel’s border with Egypt, which is a border between states, the 1967 border with Jordan was a result of war. Jordan tried to annex the West Bank with a motion in the UN in the 1950s and failed. The verdict regarding sites in these territories and antiquities found in them must therefore wait for a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. These issues are on the negotiating table. Meanwhile, artifacts from excavations in the West Bank are kept separately from artifacts from Israeli sites. Archaeology in the 50% of the West Bank which is under Israeli administration is administered according to the Jordanian law which prevailed before 1967.

5. Hisham’s Palace near Jericho (Khirbat el-Mafjar) was excavated between 1934 and 1948 at the time of the British Mandate, and the artifacts were then taken to Jerusalem. Israel had nothing to do with this. These artifacts, like all others, will be on the negotiating table when a border between Israel and a Palestinian state is drawn.

6. The Dead Sea Scrolls on display in the Israel Museum were bought in the US in the 1940s and 1950s. As such, they are not contested, not even by the Palestinians and Jordanians. The other scrolls were excavated in the 1950s, under Jordanian rule, and were then taken to Jerusalem. Israel had nothing to do with it. They too will be on the negotiating table.

7. Moshe Dayan’s looting of antiquities was scandalous and the sale of the looted antiquities to the Israel Museum a shame. For the record it should be mentioned that Dayan looted sites not only in the Palestinian territories but within the borders of the State of Israel as well. In fact, in 1968 he almost died in an accident in an illicit excavation on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.

8. The fact that the City of David site is administered by a non-governmental organization with a political orientation is disgraceful. This sensitive place must be administered by the state, that is, by either the Israel Parks Authority or by the Israel Antiquities Authority. Excavation in the City of David is done according to law and in a proper archaeological method.

9. Also for the record, it must be said that the most devastating damage inflicted on antiquities in Jerusalem was the bulldozing of (mainly Islamic) antiquities from the Temple Mount by the Waqf – the Islamic religious authority which controls the Temple Mount. This was done in the course of constructing a mosque under the el-Aqsa mosque. Work there was carried out savagely, with no inspection by archaeologists.

10. The narrator complains that only Jewish antiquities are being sold in the Arab markets of east Jerusalem and that Islamic antiquities have no value in these markets. Now, the value of antiquities rises and falls in accordance with the interest of foreign tourists and possible (mainly foreign) collectors. If there were genuine interest by Arab collectors in their heritage, the price would go up overnight.

11. The program is full of false allegations:

a.) An insinuation at the beginning that artifacts from excavations in the West Bank were handed over to collectors is a lie.

b.) The insinuation that tunnels are being dug under the el-Aqsa mosque is false propaganda. The closest excavation to the mosque is some 70 meters away from it.

c.) Thomas Thompson makes a connection between (first Prime Minister of Israel) David Ben Gurion’s interest in archaeology and the refugees of 1948. This is a manipulation of the facts: the refugees left their villages during the war of 1948, while Ben Gurion’s interest in archaeology began in the 1950s.

d.) The program shows pictures of ongoing excavations, giving the viewer the impression that they are conducted in Palestinian territories. Yet, most of these pictures were taken in Greenberg’s dig at Beth-Yerah near the Sea of Galilee, within the borders of the State of Israel.

e.) The line of the anti-terrorism fence is a matter of political dispute. But there is no straightforward connection between it and the looting of antiquities. If the fence increases unemployment, it is the duty of the Palestinian Authority to prevent this unemployment from being channeled to looting.

Before concluding, there are a few things to be said beyond politics. Archaeology in Israel is prospering and is of a high quality, ranking among the best in the world. Israeli archaeologists are in the frontline of research. A hasty look at the front pages of international journals which deal with archaeology – not only of the Levant – reveals a number of Israeli scholars far beyond their proportion in the world archaeology community. With all criticism that one (once in a while by this author, too) may have concerning the Israel Antiquities Authority, the organization administers archaeology in Israel in an efficient, orderly and professional way. And finally, without counting articles, I dare state that Israeli scholars contribute to the knowledge of Islamic archaeology more than all archaeologists in the Arab world combined. In the end, archaeology – as every other science – is decided by the level of education and scholarly work, not by politics and propaganda.

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