Unapproved Construction at West Bank Dig Site

Archaeologists say new buildings at Tel Shiloh designed to strengthen local settlements, damage antiquities.

Moti Milrod

The Mateh Binyamin Regional Council has commenced construction at the archaeological site of Tel Shiloh, despite the fact that building plans there have not yet been approved. The local council claims that work at the site is legitimate since it is conducted according to an existing plan. Nevertheless it ordered a stop to construction after archaeologists, strongly opposed to the plan, threatened to lodge a complaint.

Tel Shiloh is one of the most important ancient sites in Judea and Samaria. Tradition has it that the Ark of the Covenant was placed there before being transported to Jerusalem. Excavations have discovered multiple layers, dating back to the Bronze and Iron ages, as well as the classical, Byzantine and Muslim periods. The site is managed and developed by the Mateh Binyamin Regional Council.

Last year, a large observation tower was completed at the site’s highest point. The tower angered archaeologists, who claimed that it was erected contrary to accepted conventions, which avoid building at the top of ancient mounds. In addition, the tower was built without a permit, based on plans for a much smaller tower that stood there in the past.

The current construction plans are much more grandiose than those for the tower, and incorporate massive development of large areas at the bottom of the mound, including those with archaeological relics. The plan calls for the construction of an amphitheater, a 60-room hotel, a large parking lot and commercial center, galleries, shops and “boutique workshops that will not harm the environment.”

“The proposed plan will cause irreparable damage to the character of the site and its antiquities,” says archaeologist Yoni Mizrahi of the “Emek Shaveh” organization of archaeologist and community activists, which is trying to use archeology as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians. “It would be inconceivable to build a hotel, an amphitheater, a boutique workshop and a tower at such a site within the Green Line. The proposed plan is scandalous and has been brought forth before serious discussions or ratification by planning bodies. The law is being broken and antiquities damaged. The purpose of this construction and usage of antiquities is to strengthen the settlements in the area. This is a clear statement by Israel and the settlers regarding their intentions as to the future of the area.”

In two weeks the Civil Administration’s planning committee will hear the arguments opposing the plan. Among the opponents is the Emek Shaveh group, which says that construction will damage important archaeological layers. Members of the group arrived two weeks ago to prepare their case and were surprised to see that work had already begun. There were many bulldozers at work, with workers claiming that they were building an amphitheater.

The Mateh Binyamin Regional Council initially stated that they were operating under an older plan but then they ordered the work stopped, instructing the contractors to return things to their previous state. This was supposedly ordered by the Civil Administration.

Mizrahi says that the site’s management is selective in presenting the site. Visitors are guided mainly around the story of the Ark, although this period is actually only scantily represented at the site. Later periods left behind many more significant findings. “The tour ignores the rich diversity and complexity of the site and highlights only one period, which left behind very little,” Emek Shaveh wrote in its opposition to the plan.