The ministerial committee that deals with national heritage sites, under the auspices of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, decided last week to embrace a new West Bank project: Thanks to a government allocation of NIS 5 million, archaeological excavations and other preservation work will take place at Tel Shiloh, a biblical site in the West Bank. A large tourist center is also planned as part of the project; visitors there will learn about life in the biblical era in Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was said to have been held for 369 years.
This is a precedent-setting decision, since Israeli governments up to now have not allocated funds for renovation and preservation of the site, located within the area of the Binyamin Regional Council. The committee’s decision to embark on the project states that “Tel Shiloh is a unique heritage asset” for the Jewish people, and mention was made of the fact that work at the site will be backed by supplementary funds totaling some NIS 10 million, to be provided by private sources.
In the months ahead, wide-ranging excavation work is to be undertaken at Tel Shiloh, with the assistance of the Department of Antiquities and the chairman of the head of the national heritage development department in the Prime Minister’s Office, Reuven Pinsky. Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar visited the site a few weeks ago, and declared that Tel Shiloh will become part of the tour circuit organized for schools by his ministry. Indeed, an examination by Haaretz shows that Tel Shiloh was added to the Education Ministry tour list just a few months ago.
Meanwhile, the ministerial committee for heritage sites decided yesterday to leave the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb off its updated list of sites supported by the government; this move contradicted declarations made by Netanyahu on the subject two years ago.
The exclusion of the two sites stirred sharp criticism in right-wing circles. Minister Daniel Hershkowitz (Habayet Hayehudi) demanded that the sites be reinstated on the list. Yesha council Chairman Danny Dayan said the decision constitutes an attempt to eradicate vital parts of Jewish history. “Instead of standing firm as a wall in opposition to the mendacious Arab narrative, the government is paving a path for it,” claimed Dayan.
MK Uri Ariel (National Union) said that “this is an unprecedented, grave decision which can be added to a list of other government decisions that have harmed the settlement of Judea and Samaria.”
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office explained that the two sites were excluded since they do not require immediate renovation and maintenance work. Budgets, they say, can be allocated for them when needs arise.
“Renovation work was done on Rachel’s Tomb a few months ago, and there are no problems at the Tomb of the Patriarchs that require immediate repair work,” the PMO announced. The office also clarified that the ministerial committee regards the two sites as being part of the list of heritage locales, and the decision not to allocate funds to them now does not detract from their importance and centrality vis-a-vis Jewish heritage and history.
The ministerial committee decided unanimously to allocate NIS 72.5 for renovation work at 13 sites. Authorized projects include archaeological sites, museums and archives. Among other projects, yesterday’s decision will earmark funds for restoration work on the windmill in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe quarter, and on upgrading the Umm el-Umdan site near Modi’in, which features remains of a Jewish settlement from the Hasmonean period. Up to now, the government has endorsed 65 heritage projects, among them 40 historical sites; NIS 250 million has been allocated to support these undertakings.