Buried treasure that's kept in the dark
An "archaeological heart of darkness" is how Dr. Rafi Greenberg has described Israel's behavior in the territories since 1967.
The first 10 minutes at the excavation site passed in silence. The moment we saw the high walls and the large, well-preserved rooms dug into the ground between the olive trees, the archaeologists in the group started to bound from wall to wall, to delve into the rooms. "This is one of the biggest MBs I've seen," Dr. Rafi Greenberg, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University, mumbled. "It really is a very impressive MB," another of the archaeologists in the group agreed. Because of their excitement, it took a bit of time to get them to explain. "What's MB?" I asked. "Middle Bronze," they replied, as experts reply to lay people. "Middle Bronze. The Canaanites."
The hill with the olive trees whose peak we were walking on should be deeply engraved in the Jewish collective memory. This hill - Khirbet al-Yahud, in Batir, a Palestinian village just south of Jerusalem in the West Bank - has for many years been associated with Betar, where the Bar-Kochba revolt was suppressed. Archaeologists have been excavating the site for more than 150 years, and nearly all of them are convinced that it was precisely here, in 135 CE, that the Romans decimated Bar-Kochba's forces and effectively set in motion the exile of the Jews from the land. The discovery that Khirbet al-Yahud (literally, "ruin of the Jews") is actually an ancient Canaanite site could thus be very significant. But we will know the answer to that question only if the army archaeologist - or, to give him his full title, the staff officer for archaeology in the Civil Administration - wishes to reveal it. Right now he is under no obligation to do so. He is not even obligated to make public the fact that he is digging at Batir/Betar. He is in charge of issuing excavation permits in the territories, he carries out most of the digs himself, he takes the finds to his storerooms, and he does not have to report to anyone about his actions or to publish his findings. If he wants to, he will publish; if he does not want to, the findings will sink into eternal oblivion.
An "archaeological heart of darkness" is how Greenberg has described Israel's behavior in the territories since 1967. He used the phrase in a lecture he delivered recently in the wake of a study he conducted over the past few years, which found that about 1,100 excavation permits were issued for digs that took place at 700 sites in the West Bank, not including East Jerusalem. (In some cases more than one permit was issued for the same site.) But documentation of any kind, Greenberg says, exists for only 15 percent of the digs. And even that documentation was obtained by Greenberg with no small effort, by perusing documents and talking to other archaeologists. All his requests to the Civil Administration for a list containing only the names of the sites that were excavated in the West Bank and the names of the excavators drew a negative response. Not even a request based on the Freedom of Information Law helped. Archaeology in the dark.
The staff officer for archaeology (SOA) is another of the peculiar entities that have governed life in the West Bank since 1967. A professional body by character, it is headed by a civilian who is an expert in the field, but who operates within an army framework, such as the Civil Administration, and on the basis of military orders. International law prohibits archaeological digs in occupied territories, other than rescue digs, and the findings may not be removed from those territories - to do so is considered antiquities theft. The upshot is that the staff officer for archaeology holds sole responsibility for all archaeological matters beyond the Green Line. (The SOA, like Education Minister Yuli Tamir, knows exactly where the Green Line runs). Nor is he subject to the authority of the Antiquities Authority, which approves and supervises all digs within Israel proper.
Formally, the SOA is subordinate to the GOC Central Command. However, because the head of the Central Command knows more about the contemporary Palestinian period than the Chalcolithic period, the SOA effectively runs his own show. For the past 25 years the post of SOA has been held by Dr. Yitzhak Magen. "It's like a lifetime appointment, completely without precedent in the Israeli public service," Greenberg says.
Not everything that Israel has done in terms of archaeology in the West Bank is negative, Greenberg notes. Since 1967, some 5,000 archaeological sites in the West Bank have been surveyed, and most of the surveys have been published. True, Greenberg says, the surveys were done by Israeli archaeologists and they naturally preferred sites that are important to Jewish rather than Palestinian history, but the work was professional. And even though the finds were removed from the sites, Greenberg explains, they are preserved in satisfactory manner in SOA storerooms in Jerusalem. The finds are not open to the general public, still less the Palestinian public from the soil of whose villages they were extracted. But Greenberg hopes that if, one day, Israeli rule in the West Bank ends it will be possible to transfer to the Palestinians in an orderly manner the antiquities removed from the territories.
Greenberg admits that Israeli archaeologists have excavated mainly the First Temple and Second Temple periods, while sometimes "peeling" layers from Muslim periods, but he does not think they can be seriously faulted on this score. It is natural for Israeli archaeologists to take an interest in the history of their people, he says - it's the same everywhere. Greenberg adds that it is difficult to point to a clear political leaning - right-wing or religious - among the Israeli archaeologists who worked in the territories. Prof. Israel Finkelstein, for example, wrote a very important study which cast doubt on the existence of King David and King Solomon, and even in the existence of the First Temple, based on digs he conducted at Shiloh and elsewhere in the West Bank.
The main problem, though, Greenberg says, is documentation. "We were taught in university that archaeology is the planned destruction of an antiquities site," Greenberg notes. "A dig that does not conclude with an orderly publication is pretty much tantamount to antiquities theft." And that is exactly what has gone on in the West Bank, he maintains, especially in recent years. According to the data he has collected, in the 1980s, between 40 and 60 percent of West Bank digs were conducted by archaeologists from Israeli or foreign research institutions, who were obligated to publish their findings through academic channels. "Those digs symbolized the feeling that the territories are ours, that there is no Green Line," Greenberg says.
With the first intifada, Israeli academics began to abstain from carrying out digs in the West Bank. "Maybe they were afraid, maybe they began to understand the political significance of their actions," Greenberg suggests. Many international professional journals refuse to publish studies based on digs done in "controversial" areas, such as the West Bank.
As a result, the SOA conducts nearly all the digs done now in the West Bank. According to Greenberg's figures, from 1993 to 1998, the SOA, Magen, conducted 95 percent of the digs in the West Bank himself. Only nine of the 171 excavation permits that Magen issued went to academic institutions. Since 1998, another 300 excavation permits have been issued, nearly all to Magen. "If you want to excavate in Israel, you need authorization from the Antiquities Authority and the Archaeological Council," Greenberg explains. "They check whether you have experience, if you 'owe' publications on past digs, they ask to see your scientific plan, and want to know how the site will be treated after you finish digging, and what kind of budget you have."
In the territories, nothing of this procedure exists. The SOA is the sole issuer of excavation permits. He has an advisory council, but it deals only with digs by "outside" researchers. Permits for digs conducted by the SOA are issued by the SOA. He does not have to explain anything or present his previous publications.
"No one knows where the digs are going on, there is no orderly list, there is no obligation to publish, and publication is selective, at the will of the SOA," Greenberg says. "Work of this kind has no historical or archaeological meaning. To excavate a site is not to rescue it; to excavate is to document it scientifically."
According to Greenberg, Magen views himself as a researcher who is rescuing sites from destruction. "That is a direct continuation of colonialist archaeology, which 'rescued' the antiquities of Greece from the Greeks and of Egypt from the Egyptians," he argues. The absurdity, he says, is that this method actually causes the destruction of sites.
"Magen 'marks' sites for the antiquities thieves," Greenberg says. "He has no money to maintain the sites after he finishes excavating them. He uncovered a beautiful mosaic in a Byzantine church, but after he left thieves came and removed the entire mosaic, so what's the point?"
Greenberg believes that excavating in occupied territory is problematic. "An occupying force arrives from outside and makes unilateral decisions, without consulting the local residents," he says. "Archaeology has social significance, because you are taking part of the landscape and giving the archaeologists a kind of veto power over it. That's why archaeologists must be transparent; we must report to the public on what we are doing. We, as historians, must be sensitive to such matters. We have to know that what is being done in the territories is a crime."
But beyond this, Greenberg is simply concerned that parts of the history of the Land of Israel will be lost. "Because of the lack of supervision over what is happening in the territories," he says, "there is a vast gap between what was excavated and the information we have about those excavations. We have no guarantee that this gap will be closed in the future."