A Jerusalem court upheld on Wednesday the state’s decision to maintain the anonymity of Israeli archaeologists digging in the West Bank. The court also approved the withholding of information about the whereabouts of the archaeological finds hidden, in order not to harm Israel’s foreign relations.
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The court denied a petition filed by NGOs Yesh Din and Emek Shaveh that instructed the civil administration to provide information about archaeological digs in the West Bank. The petitioners asked for the names of the archaeologists, the location of items discovered and a list of finds loaned to museums, research institutions and exhibitions.
District Court Judge Yigal Mersel accepted the state’s position that publishing the archaeologists’ names could put them at risk. “There’s a significant fear that real harm may befall the [archaeologists’] professional and economic interests as a result of an academic boycott,” he wrote.
The judge specified the potential harm as the inability to get academic papers published, the refusal of research grants and difficulty in obtaining the cooperation of foreign researchers – all of which could impede their academic careers. The harm could also extend to the universities employing the archaeologists, he said.
The Oslo accords stipulate that Israel must inform the Palestinian Authority of all excavations carried out in the occupied territories and provide a list of the discovered items, in preparation for future negotiations over the sites and the finds. But the court accepted the foreign ministry’s argument that publishing the whereabouts of finds from the West Bank could harm Israel’s position in future talks with the Palestinians.
Before giving his ruling, the judge asked museums and other institutions that have finds from the West Bank to weigh in. Most asked that the fact that they have items from West Bank digs not be made public, for fear of being boycotted by other institutions around the world.
Information about archaeological items from the West Bank can often be found on museum signs or exhibit lists. One institute approached by the court returned its finds to the civil administration.
The state’s position “reveals that the state itself believes its hands are not clean and that it must hide its archaeological activities in the West Bank,” a Yesh Din spokesman said in response to the ruling. “It’s regrettable that the court chose to lend a hand to the state’s concealment policy, which denies the public’s right to know and its ability to supervise and monitor,” he said.
“The decision shows that the state sees archaeology in the West Bank as a secret military activity and not academic research,” said archaeologist Yoni Mizrahi of Emek Shaveh. “If it’s permitted to hide the names of diggers in the West Bank and the public may not know where the findings are, it means that the archaeology in the West Bank is essentially political.”