The Bedouin welcomed the Jews of the First Aliyah to the Negev.
The Bedouin welcomed the Jews of the First Aliyah to the Negev. Photo by Michal Fattal
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Association for Civil Rights
Residents of the village of Zanuta. Photo by Association for Civil Rights

The Civil Administration is calling for the demolition of a Palestinian village in the southern West Bank, partly because it is built on an archaeological site.

The call for demolition comes despite the fact that Israeli authorities have approved the construction of Jewish settlements on much more important archaeological sites, such as the settlement at Tel Rumeida in Hebron and the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem.

In the past year, the High Court of Justice has been asked to rule on the state's intentions to demolish at least 12 villages south of Hebron (Susia, Dekaika, Bir al-Id, Saala and eight villages that have been declared part of army firing zone No. 918) located in Area C, which is under Israeli control, and force their residents to move to Areas A and B, which are under Palestinian civil control. Next week it will also rule on the fate of Zanuta, a village that lies on the border of the West Bank.

Residents of Zanuta, who filed a joint petition to the High Court of Justice with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel are requesting that the Civil Administration complete a detailed construction plan for them. If the planning of their village were regularized, the demolition orders issued by the Civil Administration against their improvised structures would be reversed, and construction would be permitted in accordance with the natural growth of the population and their needs. The Civil Administration is refusing to comply with the request, and is instead demanding that the residents move to the town of Dahariya.

Zanuta, like other small Palestinian villages in the area, existed as a cave-settlement before the West Bank was occupied by Israel. Archaeological findings reveal that Zanuta had been inhabited continuously from the Byzantine to the Ottoman period, until eventually being reduced to "a settlement of shepherds and fellahs living in the remains of the ancient structures and the residential caves alongside them," as archaeologist Dr. Avi Ofer described it. Once the caves began to crumble and became unsafe, the residents of Zanuta set up improvised structures and tents at ground level.

The Civil Administration states that the site was declared an archaeological site at the time of the British Mandate. The Administration found that the improvised structures, which were built without permits (in the absence of a master plan), are located directly on top of the center of the archaeological site, and that one of the structures is inside an ancient structure excavated by an archaeology staff officer in 2005.

"There is no possibility of retroactively authorizing unlawful construction that takes place in the middle of an archaeological site. No master plan can authorize construction in an archaeological site. Moreover, the petitioners made use of archaeologically valuable stones in the construction of the unlawful structures," Yitzhak Bart, chief assistant to the State Prosecutor, wrote to the High Court on behalf of the Civil Administration's subcommittee on supervision of construction in Judea and Samaria.

Avi Ofer confirms that "most of the tents and shelters in Zanuta are truly located on the archaeological site," but says that this is not out of the ordinary, as finding "this type of settlement inside ancient ruins," happens often, "in the past and in the present."

Ofer, whose doctorate on the Judean Hills in the biblical period includes a summary of the region's history of settlement extending from 6000 years ago to the present, emphasizes that as opposed to what is frequently found in other archaeology sites, "in the area of this site, there is a blessed lack of any signs of digging for the purpose of archaeological theft." At the request of the ACRI and the non-profit organization Bimkom for Planning Rights, he prepared a written opinion on Zanuta. The opinion was appended this month to the High Court petition, which will be heard by Justices Edna Arbel, Noam Solberg and Hanan Meltzer.

Between 1982 and 1987, Ofer headed the Judean Hill team and the Tel Hebron (Tel Rumeida) excavations. He expresses astonishment at the magnitude of the area that the Civil Administration delimited as the "Zanuta archaeology site" – 120 dunams (30 acres), whereas the real site, in his opinion, is half or less the size. Ofer wrote that this is "an exaggeration that is characteristic of the authorities in Judea and Samaria."

Ofer also disputes the opinion of the Civil Administration regarding the possible existence of a settlement on the archaeology site.

"To the best of my knowledge and experience," he writes, "the customary position in the State of Israel in instances in which residential housing exists in the area of an archaeology site is to permit continued residence, but to stipulate that any expansion or change will require archaeological examination."

Zanuta possesses "a certain" archaeological importance, he said, but there is not "any similarity, even in the slightest, between the immense (archaeological) significance of ancient Jerusalem and biblical Hebron" and Zanuta, Ofer wrote.

Nevertheless, he notes, in both of the latter sites the authorities authorized construction and settlement within the site, while investing a great deal of money to combine excavations and residential housing.