Court: Names of Israeli Archaeologists Digging in West Bank Can Stay Secret

Jerusalem District Court accepts state’s position that publicizing names could expose archaeologists to academic boycotts and undermine Israel’s foreign relations.

An archaeological dig taking place near Kibbutz Megiddo, Israel
Rami Shllush

The names of Israeli archaeologists excavating in the West Bank should be kept secret, likewise the location of where dug-up artifacts are stored, Jerusalem District Court has ruled.

It thereby accepted the state’s position that publicizing this information could expose the archaeologists to academic boycotts and undermine Israel’s foreign relations.

The decision was handed down in response to a freedom of information petition filed by two organizations – Yesh Din and Emek Shaveh – against Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank. Yesh Din is a human-rights organization, while Emek Shaveh describes itself as an organization focusing on the role of archaeology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Among other things, the organizations wanted to know the names of the archaeologists conducting the digs; the place where any artifacts uncovered by the digs are stored; and a list of all such artifacts that have been loaned to museums, research institutes and exhibitions. But the court rejected most of these requests.

Regarding the archaeologists’ names, Judge Yigal Mersel accepted the state’s argument that such exposure could harm them professionally.

“There is substantial fear of real harm to their professional and economic interests as a result of the academic boycott,” he wrote. “The intensity and scope of the harm to the researchers was made clear on a long list of issues: nonacceptance of articles for publication; nonreceipt of research grants; difficulties in cooperation with researchers from abroad; and harm to their ability to advance upward through the ranks of academia.”

Moreover, Mersel noted, it isn’t the archaeologists alone who might suffer harm, but also their universities.

Mersel also accepted the state’s opinion that the location of artifacts dug up in the West Bank should remain secret.

The Oslo Accords state that Israel is supposed to give the Palestinians a list of all excavations done in the territories and all artifacts found in these digs, ahead of future negotiations over the fate of these archaeological sites and their artifacts. But Foreign Ministry representatives argued in court that publishing where these artifacts are stored could undermine Israel’s position in any future talks.

During the hearings, Mersel asked Israeli museums and research institutes that hold artifacts from the West Bank for their view on the matter. Most of the institutes said they didn’t want their possession of these artifacts to be made public, for fear of being boycotted by similar institutions overseas. One institution questioned by the court about the issue even opted to return the West Bank artifacts in its possession to the Civil Administration.

In most cases, artifacts from the West Bank are clearly identified as such in both museum display signs describing them and the institutions’ list of exhibits – so this information isn’t exactly secret. Nevertheless, Mersel accepted the state’s argument that handing over the list of institutions could undermine Israel’s foreign relations.

Some of the information supporting this claim was given to the judge without the petitioners or their lawyers present.

“State agencies’ fear of the boycott that would be imposed on excavators in the West Bank and of damage to [Israel’s] foreign relations ... reveals that the state itself believes its hands aren’t clean and, therefore, it must strive to conceal its actions in the field of West Bank archaeology,” Yesh Din said in a statement after the ruling.

“It’s too bad that the court chose to lend its hand to a policy of concealment and blackouts, which deprives the public of the right to know, and of the ability to supervise and criticize,” it added.

Archaeologist Yonatan Mizrahi of Emek Shaveh said the ruling “shows, above all, that in the West Bank archaeology is treated as a secret military operation, not as academic research. Research is based on revealing the researcher’s identity and making the artifacts public. If it’s permissible to conceal the names of people excavating in the West Bank and the public has no way of knowing where these archaeological finds are, this means archaeology in the West Bank is fundamentally political.

“These archaeological artifacts are an asset that belongs to the entire public, and certainly to the Palestinians on whose lands the digs are taking place,” Mizrahi added. “It’s surprising that the court allowed the Civil Administration to loan these finds without reporting where they are, and that residents of the area can’t even know where these antiquities are being stored.”