Israel appropriating historical sites for colonial ends

Orthodox Jews walk past Israel’s wall near Rachel’s Tomb in the occupied West Bank. (Inbal Rose/MaanImages)

Inbal Rose Maan Images

Moves by the Israeli government and settler movement to appropriate historical sites undermine Palestinian cultural rights and highlight how Israel exploits archaeological claims for colonial ends.

Last spring, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and the Bilal Mosque/Rachel’s Tomb outside Bethlehem to be “Israeli national heritage sites.” As The Electronic Intifada has reported since, the State of Israel seems to have two approaches to Palestine’s ancient sites. If, like the sites Netanyahu claimed or the remains at Sebastia, they fit into Israeli narratives about the Jewish history of the region, they are appropriated, renovated and incorporated into “archaeological parks.” If, like excavated finds and important buildings in Gaza, they highlight ancient Philistine or more recent Islamic periods of history, they can be bombed along with Gaza’s residents, or simply allowed to decay as vital conservation chemicals are excluded by the blockade. As an American-accented tour guide, overheard in Jerusalem’s Haram al-Sharif in October 2010, put it: “Having worked on two or three archaeological digs here [in Jerusalem], I can tell you that if anything is between 200 and 500 years old, it just gets tossed. It’s nothing.”

It’s against this setting that in October 2010, while researching a guidebook to Palestine, I found myself increasingly confused about a number of historical sites scattered around the occupied West Bank. None of them had the religious and historical importance of the Ibrahimi Mosque or Rachel’s Tomb, but they had their own place in Palestinian history and architecture. They were places mentioned in Palestinian tourism publications such as the locally-published Alternative Tourism Group travel guide Palestine and The Palestinians, the official Palestinian Authority Ministry of Tourism website, Jericho Municipality’s tourist listings or the “Places to Visit” section of the PA’s diplomatic mission to Japan website. This implied that they were recognized by Palestinian sources as being part of the country’s heritage. But the information about them was hazy, as if their existence was being acknowledged but at the same time they weren’t being incorporated into the itineraries of the growing Palestinian cultural tourism industry. Palestinian tour organizers I spoke to dismissed my inquiries, saying only that “I’ve never been there” or “we don’t take groups there.” There was, I soon found, a very good reason for this.

The first site that mystified me is a cluster of remains south of Jerusalem, close to the recently-expanded highway that runs through the occupied West Bank desert toward Jericho and the Jordan River. This comprises three buildings (or groups of buildings), only one of which was visible from the main road. This is an Ottoman caravanserai (most of the building is 16th century, although it may have older Mamluk elements), where merchants and their baggage-trains once took refuge for the night on the bandit-ridden road. It’s known as the Khan al-Ahmar or, in the way that many buildings in Palestine pick up Biblical names, as the Inn of the Good Samaritan, a reference to one of Jesus’ parables.

The other two buildings in the cluster are the monasteries of St. Euthymius and St. Martyrius, both founded in the fifth century. Along with other cells, monasteries and lavras (groups of isolated hermits’ dwellings) of the Desert Fathers, these are some of the most ancient Christian monasteries in existence and immensely important to Palestine’s historical, architectural and religious heritage. In the 2008 edition of The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide From Earliest Times to 1700, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Professor of New Testament at the Ecole Biblique et Archeologique Francaise, Jerusalem refers to the Monastery of St. Euthymius as a “forlorn ruin surrounded by graceless factories.” The factories Murphy-O’Connor mentions are those of Mishor Adumim, the industrial section of the sprawling and illegal settlement of Maale Adumim, which is a key part of Israel’s division of the occupied West Bank into unviable bantustans. Assuming that Murphy-O’Connor, researching the 2008 edition of his guide, saw it “forlorn” and abandoned in perhaps 2007, St. Euthymius’ monastery was not to remain a “ruin” for much longer.

Maale Adumim is apparently, like some of the Etzion Bloc settlements (which are increasingly selling themselves as wine tourism destinations), seeking to add heritage tourism to its economic activities. In 2009 an invitation to the opening of a “mosaic museum” at the Inn of the Good Samaritan was circulated around Israeli ministries and media. “On Behalf of the Head of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories,” it offered a range of activities at the 4 June launch, including tours by “Civil Administration’s Staff Officer of Archeology and Antiquities.” Tellingly, descriptions of the attractions on offer emphasized Second Temple-era and Byzantine Christian remains, but made no mention of the Ottoman and possibly earlier Islamic buildings of the caravanserai which is the core of the Khan al-Ahmar site. If there was ever any doubt on the subject, Israeli archaeology was exposed as being entirely complicit with the occupation, sidelining Palestine’s Islamic heritage, appropriating its Christian sites (and in doing so also sidelining Palestine’s own historic Christian communities) and highlighting its Jewish remains above those of the main other cultures which have enriched this land.

The website of the Maale Adumim settlement offered an insight into the activities at the three sites over the last couple of years. It declared that “The Municipality of Maale Adumim is developing the Good Samaritan’s Inn and the hills surrounding it as a tourist complex, aiming to meet the demand for modern tourism services without losing the site’s unique ancient nature” (“The Good Samaritan Inn”). The site details plans for “restoration of the existing building to accommodate incoming groups, including a praying and religious studies section. Development will include a motel and restaurant modeled in an authentic ‘khan’ style.” In the future, a 150-room “ecological hotel” will be built on the cliffs overlooking the site.

By February 2011, the final pieces fell into place when the website of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) declared “New Sites’ Opening – The Inn of The Good Samaritan and more.” The INPA runs nature reserves and archaeological parks in both Israel and the occupied West Bank, including the one at Sebastia, which was previously reported on by The Electronic Intifada. According to the website, the Inn of The Good Samaritan, and the Euthymius and Martyrius monasteries are due to open to the public in July 2011. In addition, the mosaic museum and archaeological remains at these sites will also be opened to tourists. The entrance fees for the sites will pour into Israeli state coffers and, as they are situated within a settlement and will very possibly be run by settler staff, Palestinians will most likely be denied even the privilege of paying the 21 shekel ($6 US) ticket price to the Israeli occupation authorities to visit their own heritage.

A second example lies in the green, intricately curving hills of the central West Bank. On the road between Ramallah and Nablus, near the village of Luban al-Sharqiya and the small town of Sinjel, is Khirbet Seilun, or Tel Shilo. The layers of habitation deposits at the tel (an archaeological term referring to a hill made up of centuries of building remains) show that people have lived there since at least the Canaanite Bronze Age, and there are significant Roman, Byzantine and Islamic remains. Khirbet Seilun is regarded as sacred by some Jews because is has been identified by some historians as the Biblical Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept for a period on its travels north from Mount Sinai. Excavations in the early 1980s uncovered remains from the Canaanite and Israelite periods, but nothing resembling the Tabernacle, the building which may have housed the Ark at Shiloh. More recent archaeological digs have been controversial because they have uncovered a spectacular Byzantine mosaic which some settlers want to move so they can continue searching for the Israelite sacred remains they believe lie beneath the three Byzantine churches and two small mosques on the site.

Unlike the Khan al-Ahmar and monasteries of St. Euthymius and St. Martyrius, a visitor center at Tel Shilo is already functioning. Rather than being managed by the INPA, the Tel Shilo site is run by the extremist settlers of Shiloh who, journalists and human rights groups report have been responsible for innumerable attacks, including shootings and arson, against neighboring Palestinian villages and olive farmers. The Shiloh settlement was founded in the 1970s by the Gush Emunim terrorist group, which exploded car bombs against the mayors of several Palestinian cities in 1980, seriously injuring Bassam Shakaa, then mayor of Nablus (see “Shiloh: An Obstacle to Peace,” Time, 13 February 1978 and Nur Masalha, Imperial Israel and the Palestinians, 2000, p 123). Shiloh and the archaeological remains it has appropriated are now marketed as a destination for pilgrimages and religious tourism but, perhaps unsurprisingly given the beliefs of the settlers here, some non-Jewish tourists report being turned away.

Controversy over the archaeological heritage of Khirbet Seilun looks set to escalate. Last month, The Jewish Press reported that the Israeli government had authorized large-scale new excavations at the site. The aims of the excavations were explicitly said by the paper to be “to showcase the life and times of ancient Israel,” which suggests that the archaeologists carrying them out have specific intentions as to what they will find – or not find (“New archaeological effort seeks to unearth Mishkan’s secrets,” 23 March 2011). The article did not name the director of the new excavations, but previous digs at Khirbet Seilun have been led by Rachel Ehrlich, a hard-line settler who, in a profile on one Christian Zionist website, was described as being “determined to put the site [of Shiloh] on the map [as] the place where the people of Israel first entered the land, where religious life for the Jewish people was centered for the 369 years the Tabernacle stood there” (“Uncovering our Past, Christian Friends of Israel Communities).

Tzofia Dorot, the manager of the Shiloh visitor center, made some telling comments to The Jewish Press about the importance to settler public relations of Israel’s appropriation of heritage sites. She claimed that Shiloh has been “seeing more and more local and foreign visitors” and that three companies with proposals for a “major visitor center” had visited the settlement. This activity occurred in spite of the skepticism from archaeologists about whether Dorot’s “headline-making discoveries” were really likely to be made.

Tzofia Dorot’s comments to The Jewish Press illustrate why the expropriation of Palestinian heritage sites – whether by the State of Israel or by settler groups acting as its proxies – has a significance well beyond the loss of individual buildings or artifacts. In the eyes of settlers and their supporters, in Israel and beyond, stealing Palestinian archaeological and architectural heritage isn’t just about attracting tourists with open wallets. It’s about asserting settler claims to the land, by emphasizing Jewish history over and above that of the peoples and faiths who came before and after them in Palestine. It is also about presenting the Jewish people as the legitimate custodians of Palestine’s Christian heritage, diverting attention from Israeli oppression of the world’s oldest and longest-lived Christian communities and reinforcing misconceptions about the Palestinian struggle as a religious rather than anti-colonial movement. As Dorot sees it, the international “effort to discredit and delegitimize our connection to the Land of Israel is gathering steam.” Thus, showing settler archaeology to gullible tourists, she believes, will be vital in countering “the international community’s clamoring for Israel to make concessions.”

Meanwhile, Palestinian heritage organizations such as PACE and Riwaq are increasingly using models of community participation to raise awareness of the value of archaeological remains and the importance of protecting them (Ghattas J. Sayej, “Palestinian archaeology: knowledge, awareness and cultural heritage, Present Pasts, Vol 2, 2010). In Jerusalem, the Centre for Jerusalem Studies and Emek Shaveh are fighting official and settler expropriation of cultural and historical sites. But defending Palestine’s cultural heritage from the Israeli state and settlers is still low on the priority list.

Archaeologists, including Hamdan Taha, director-general of the PA’s Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage, have voiced their concerns. And in March 2010 Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Tunisia submitted a provisional agenda item on Netanyahu’s claims at the Haram al-Khalil and Rachel’s Tomb to the UNESCO executive board meeting, noting that “much of the settlement enterprise is concentrated around archaeological areas where Israel makes claims of exclusive heritage, including the settlements of Shilo, Bet El and Kiryat Arba” (see UNESCO Executive Board, Hundred and eighty-fourth session, Item 37 of the provisional agenda, 19 March 2010 [PDF]). After initial failure to reach an agreement, UNESCO declared that it “regretted” Israel’s inclusion of the Haram al-Khalil and Bilal ibn Rahmeh Mosque on a list of its heritage sites and urged it to remove it; it also “regretted” Israel’s “unilateral actions” regarding historical sites in Jerusalem; no mention was made of Tel Shilo (see UNESCO Executive Board, Hundred and eighty-fifth session, Decisions adopted by the executive board, 19 November 2010 [PDF]). But much greater international recognition of and opposition to Israel’s cultural colonialism is needed, if Palestine’s heritage is to be preserved, both for its cultural significance and economic potential.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010. She is currently working on a new edition of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and a biography of Leila Khaled.