Israel Cites Boycotts, Foreign Relations in Refusal to Divulge West Bank Archaeology Info

Publishing archaeologists' names could endanger their professional future, says state to justify ignoring Freedom of Information Law.

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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Visitors at the City of David in East Jerusalem in 2014.Credit: Emil Salman
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The State of Israel has argued in court it cannot comply with the Freedom of Information Law regarding the identities of archaeologists who excavate in the West Bank because doing so could endanger their professional future.

It also refused to give any information about what has become of artifacts excavated in the territories, for fear of “undermining the state’s foreign relations,” according to a brief filed with the Jerusalem District Court earlier this year.

The case began two years ago, when two left-wing organizations, Yesh Din and Emek Shaveh, filed a freedom of information request seeking data about digs in the West Bank.

For digs in Israel, the information they sought would be readily available through the Israel Antiquities Authority. But digs in the West Bank are under the authority of the Civil Administration, which refused to divulge most of the requested information. The organizations consequently petitioned the court against this refusal a year ago.

In its response, the state said it couldn’t reveal the names of either the institutions or the individual archaeologists conducting these digs, because this would violate their privacy.

“Moreover, there’s a fear that publishing the names of the researchers/archaeologists presently, amid calls for an academic boycott of Israel, and when such boycotts are occasionally being imposed, is liable to endanger or negatively affect their academic-professional futures,” the brief added.

The state also refused to say where artifacts excavated in these digs were being stored or to which institutions, if any, they had been given, arguing this could “undermine Israel’s foreign relations in two ways: First, it reveals the way Israel is currently implementing the Interim Agreement [with the Palestinians], and second, it is liable to harm Israel’s position in future negotiations over a permanent agreement.” This is so because the Oslo Accords require Israel to give the Palestinians a list of all archaeological digs and findings in areas that are eventually ceded to them.

In a response to the state’s brief filed last week, the organizations assailed Israel's position.

“This hypothetical fear can’t justify hiding information from the Israeli public, and the very fact that it was raised is reminiscent of the state of mind of an undemocratic regime,” their brief said, noting that Israeli taxpayers help fund these excavations, and therefore have a right to know about them. “Since when has the State of Israel conducted domestic affairs relating to the Israeli public on the basis of fear of the boycott?” it added.

Meanwhile, the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities on Tuesday released a report on the state of Israeli archaeology that criticized the political use made of archeology, the close cooperation between the right-wing organization Elad and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and the ban on excavating human remains, imposed at the demand of the ultra-Orthodox. It also charged that Israel has become a center for illegal trade in antiquities.

The report was drafted by a committee the academy set up five years ago under the chairmanship of Prof. Yoram Tsafrir, a leading archaeologist.

The only person who refused to appear before the panel was Elad director David Be’eri. Elad is involved in Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem, but also runs one of Israel’s most important archaeological sites, the City of David national park in East Jerusalem, and largely finances the excavations there. Be’eri refused to appear because he said Tsafrir, who once filed a court case against an Elad housing development that he claimed would damage antiquities, was himself tainted by politicization.

Because of Beeri’s refusal, the committee also didn’t invite left-wing groups opposed Elad testifying. Nevertheless, the report concluded it is “wrong to give an organization with a political character a senior position in financing the excavations, determining tourism routes, designing the site and exhibiting it to the public, while ignoring the Arab residents.”

It also criticized the use of archaeology for political purposes. One example it gave was the government’s effort to justify creating a national park between the East Jerusalem neighborhoods of Issawiya and A-Tur on the grounds that antiquities there needed to be preserved. In reality, the report said, the designated area contains no archaeological sites.

The report also criticized a government program to develop national heritage sites, saying it focuses on Jewish sites at the expense of other cultures.

Regarding antiquities trading, the report said that because Israel is the only country in the region where such trade is legal, it has ended up becoming an international center of illegal antiquities trade and money laundering. It said traders, usually East Jerusalem residents, buy illegally excavated antiquities in Dubai, send them to London, then bring them back to Israel as “legal” imports from Britain with appropriate documentation.

Finally, the report criticized Israel for being one of the few countries that has yet to sign an international treaty banning trade in undocumented antiquities.