Thursday, 10 April 2008

International Group of Archaeologists Unveils Proposal for Safekeeping of Israeli and Palestinian Artifacts

Thursday, April 10, 2008



Israeli, Palestinian, and American archaeologists this 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 on Tuesday, the participants 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 Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in Jerusalem, and one of the Israeli participants.

The draft is the result of five years of secret work by the Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group, a group of 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, U.N. 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 group says that both sides "hold special responsibility to preserve the archaeological heritage of Jerusalem as it 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.

Potential Opposition

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," said Mr. Dorfman. "I have no problem with dialogue. It's very important. It's essential. But not when it becomes political. This is politicization of archaeology."

But 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 added.

Facilitators at the group's meetings included Moty Cristal, a former Israeli Army negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks from 1994 to 2001. He said there was a long history of so-called Track 2 negotiations involving academics and experts from both sides, which had accompanied the peace talks since the early 1990s.

"Before Camp David, we consulted with dozens of professors and experts, and it helped enormously," said Mr. Cristal, referring to the Clinton-Barak-Arafat peace summit in July 2000.

"This is a very, very important document," said Mr. Cristal. "We will hear attacks from all sides, but this document will be on the shelf and available to the negotiators. If they want it, they can take it."

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 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.

"The Hague Convention only applies to sovereign states, and in 1967 the sovereign state controlling the West Bank was Jordan," said Mr. Dahari. "If we are to return the artifacts to the Palestinians, which I personally favor, then it will be a matter of negotiation, not of law. At the same time, I oppose handing over items of supreme importance to the Jewish people, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those must remain in our possession."

The group's document could meet with stiff opposition from a broader cross-section of archaeologists.

"I think this paper will divide Israeli opinion. Many Israelis would not agree with returning the items," said Adi Keinan of the Israeli Institute of Archaeology, who was the principal researcher on the group's West Bank database.

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