The Jewish settlers in Hebron have for some time sought to have their own archaeological park. As in other cases, the government acceded to their demand and gave them sweeping support.
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On Sunday a major excavation began in the heart of the Palestinian city, the result of a combined Israeli effort: The staff officer for archaeology in the Civil Administration issued the excavation permit, the Israel Antiquities Authority lent out its researchers, Ariel University gave the academic imprimatur and the Culture Minister provided the funds, estimated at NIS 7 million (Nir Hasson, January 9).
The settlers depict the dig as free of any political influence. But like any project carried out in the territories in general and Hebron in particular, the dig is above all a political act. It is an expansion of the Jewish hold on the heart of the West Bank’s most explosive Palestinian city and it follows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration of opposition to the relocation of its Jewish settlement.
In recent years the West Bank settlers have discovered the hidden benefits of archaeology. This ostensibly neutral discipline allows them to expropriate not only territory but also its historical narrative, fixing it in place from the Jewish perspective while disregarding other archaeological strata and cultures. The authorities – from the Israel Antiquities Authority to the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, from the Israel Defense Forces to the Prime Minister’s Office – happily cooperate.
A controversial observatory tower that was dedicated in Tel Shiloh in June was built, contrary to standard practice, on top of the site’s archaeological remains, and Israeli authorities have declared as archaeological sites places that have served the Palestinian residents for years.
The political use of finds is not new to Israeli archaeology, which to a great extent owes its beginnings to the need for physical proof of the Jewish claim to the land. But over the years, with the strengthening of the state, archaeology has shed its political dictates and become more professional.
The right’s political exploitation of archaeology not only jeopardizes U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to forge a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians but also threatens to turn the discipline itself from a scientific tool into a mouthpiece for propaganda.