There Is No Archaeological Peace

But even more than 1,400 years of Arab presence in the Holy Land is swallowed up in the archaeological definitions of conquerors.

The unsuccessful attempt to breathe life into the deflated balloon of the peace process has given rise to reports on a plethora of initiatives for the resolution of the different issues comprising the morass of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Teams of Israeli and Palestinian professionals, funded by international foundations specializing in the peace industry, hold meetings, usually abroad, and work on drafts of agreements that profess to resolve problems in such sensitive matters as Palestinian and Israeli educational curricula, determination of sovereignty, the setting of borders, economic arrangements, and the like.

Those behind the drafts acknowledge that the chances of their influencing the decision makers is not great, but they argue that the significance of the meetings lies in the very fact they are being held, and that they offer hope that a solution is possible, and only a matter of intellectual effort and goodwill.

One of these initiatives is a draft called the "Israeli-Palestinian Cultural Heritage Agreement," authored by Israeli, Palestinian and foreign archaeologists, which, in 39 detailed sections, sought to "sketch the image of an archaeological peace" (as reported by Meron Rapoport, "A Separate Peace," Haaretz English Edition, April 11, 2008).

The document was subject to a number of excited responses in the foreign press, and is scheduled to be presented at an international conference in Dublin in late June. It was also scathingly criticized by archaeologist Neal Asher Silberman ("Partitioning the Past," Haaretz English Edition, April 18, 2008), who wrote that the agreement "concentrates on the physical control of sites and the repatriation of relics, without seriously confronting the core issues: bridging the enormous differences in attitudes toward archaeology between Israelis and Palestinians, and addressing the utter lack of a sense of shared archaeological heritage."

Indeed, the agreement has sections that deal with the return of archaeological artifacts that were removed from the occupied territories since 1967, preservation of archaeological sites, cooperation on excavations, as well as special arrangements for Jerusalem. But the interest raised by the draft is connected less to its details than to its fundamental approach, which regards Israel's archaeological activities in the West Bank as a theft of cultural objects rightfully belonging to the Palestinians, as if Israelis were colonialist grave robbers a la 19th century, who stripped the precious historical legacy of the Ancient Near East and transferred them to museums in Europe. Now, goes the logic, as the land Israel is divided into two states and the era of colonialism is brought to an end, what was stolen will be restored to its rightful owners.

This approach transforms national cultural heritage into a matter of collections, which exist to be exhibited in museums before tourists, or to be part of the antiquities trade. Even though the Cultural Heritage Agreement declares that "Israel and Palestine constitute one archaeological domain that is divided by political borders," the concept that drawing geopolitical borders can determine the ownership of an ancient artifact - or an archaeological site - by one nation or another, is not only simplistic and legalistic, but should be unacceptable to anyone for whom national or cultural heritage is not dictated by "peace makers" specializing in conflict resolution and creators of a virtual world.

It is true that chauvinists and settlers have corrupted this heritage and turned it into a rite of blood and earth, but it must also be recognized that an approach that is willing to view the Qumran site, for example, as Palestinian, is an unfortunate approach that stems from revulsion at the aggressive effort to transform the Palestinians into aliens in their homeland.

The distortion created by the "dividing the land" paradigm would have an even greater impact on the Palestinians than on the Israelis. The conflict takes place only in the occupied territories, and does not occur, on the face of it, in sovereign Israel. In the draft archaeological agreement, there is no mention of Palestinian sites within Israel - villages, buildings or sacred tombs. These do not belong, in theory, to the peace process, also because for archaeologists there are no Palestinian sites. The Israeli Antiquities Law establishes that "ancient" is something that existed before 1700; in other words, more than 300 years of Palestinian civilization do not interest archaeologists, and its remains can be destroyed.

But even more than 1,400 years of Arab presence in the Holy Land is swallowed up in the archaeological definitions of conquerors: Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans. There is no "Palestinian" archaeology, not even "Arab" archaeology" - whose definition was altered to Muslim (early and late).

Ignoring this aspect of the conflict does not bode well for an "accord on the past." Cultural heritage, archaeology and historiography are fully conscripted as part of the Israel-Palestinian struggle. In spite of the appreciation we may have for the good intentions of the archaeologists, they would be better off dealing with their excavations, and avoid drafting naive and simplistic documents that only reflect the extent to which the partition into two sovereign states is leading toward absurd solutions.