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The dark role of archeology in the battle for Hebron's Tel Rumeida

Nov. 29, 2015 1:03 P.M. (Updated: Nov. 29, 2015 4:17 P.M.)
Near the archaeological site in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood of Hebron in the occupied West Bank. (AFP/File)
By: Megan Hanna

Megan Hanna is a freelance photographer and journalist based in the occupied Palestinian territory.

HEBRON (Ma'an) -- “As you can see we live in a cage,” Arwa Abu Haikel sighed as she walked up the steps of her home.

“Because of the continuous attacks by settlers, throwing stones, breaking windows and causing injuries, we had to build the bars around the windows.”

Based in Tel Rumedia, a neighborhood of Hebron, Arwa’s home possesses one of the most contentious postcodes of the occupied Palestinian territory. Hebron has been the epicenter of burgeoning violence since the outbreak of the so-called “Third Intifada” at the beginning of October, and a few weeks ago the Israeli military declared the whole of Tel Rumeida a closed military zone.

Despite this, Palestinian residents told Ma’an that Tel Rumedia’s difficulties long precede the recent spate of violence, and can be seen in the fight over the area’s archaeological ruins.

The troubled neighborhood has been at the heart of a longstanding battle -- between settlers in the area, numerous rights groups and the Palestinian municipality of Hebron -- over the development and management of an archaeological site that’s thousands of years old.

Critics say that the site is being used by a state-funded body for the benefit of extremist Israeli settlers living in the area, who have been aiming for decades to push local Palestinians out of their homes and out of the neighborhood.

A front for settler expansion

Based on archaeological surveys, the Tel Rumeida archaeological site dates back to the formation of Hebron in the middle Bronze Age. The site also has remains originating in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine periods. Excavations by the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) began in 1967, but last year new excavations started in what many criticize as a political move taken to support the presence of settlers in the area.

Yonathan Mizrachi is an Israeli archaeologist who used to work for the IAA, but left the body in order to establish Emek Shevah, an organization which monitors the role of archaeology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yonathan says the importance of and contention over the site in Tel Rumeida come from the possible implication it has for the demographic balance of the area.

“In 2014 the IAA began a new excavation in Tel Rumeida on behalf of the settlers in order to make the site an archaeological park,” Yonathan told Ma’an.

“When we started to monitor activity in Tel Rumeida, we began to see different ways that archaeology is used as a political tool,” he said.

“First of all, the idea of developing an archaeological park is the best way -- from the settlers’ point of view -- of how they can take over the land. They also realize that it can increase their power and their legitimacy over this place,” Mizrachi added.

The IAA -- supported and sponsored by the Israeli government -- received 7 million shekels ($1.8 million) last year from Israel’s ministry of culture and sport for the Tel Rumeida project, according to Mizrachi.

Abu Haikel told Ma’an that her family owns segments of land in Tel Rumeida, parts of which have been confiscated by the Israeli military and are threatened by the expansion of the archaeological park.

“Our daily life is difficult. To live in Tel Rumeida you have to be very strong, very patient and very peaceful,” Arwa said. She spoke of her fear from increasing numbers of settlers in the area, and the problem that a large influx of tourists to a settler-run archaeological park may pose for Palestinian residents.

“Through the years, we have been attacked many times by settlers, especially by buses of Zionist extremist tour groups. They cause a lot of trouble for us and have physically assaulted us many times... I have a problem in the nerve of my eye from being attacked by a settler,” Abu Haikal explained to Ma’an.

The manipulation of history

Dr. Ahmed Rjoub is the director of the Department of Site Management at the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. When speaking to Ma’an about his concerns over the management of Tel Rumeida, Rjoub explained that “the conflict is all on history, and as such Tel Rumeida is a conflicted place, not just in terms of the physical space but a conflict over history and culture, heritage and identity.

“We have a lot of fears that the history, the archaeology and the remains of this site will be faked for the interests of Israeli heritage,” Rjoub told Ma’an.

Rjoub had grave concerns over the conservation of the site, especially regarding any artifacts that might be related to Islamic heritage.

“They actually found some tombs and ruins relating to the Roman and Islamic period and removed them,” he claimed. Rjoub said that such excavations -- their methods in particular -- violate standards put in place by both Palestinian and international law, and are “against the ethics of archaeology.

"Such excavations, especially the methods of excavations, violate the international standards of Palestinian and international law, and are against the ethics of archaeology.”

“As members of the PA we tried to interfere,” Rjoub told Ma’an.

“In Oslo there is an article saying any project in Area C should be coordinated with the PA. But unfortunately Israel violates even the Oslo Accords, and refused our official requests to visit even as technical and professional archaeologists,” Rjoub said.

Explaining how the political motivations behind the excavations go against the grain of archaeological convention, Rjoub said: “They have preconceptions and interpretations over this site before they have even started the excavations.

“This is very wrong, and it isn’t a scientific method to interpret the remains before you’ve even finished excavating.”

Mizrachi also raised misgivings over the integrity of Israeli archaeological practice in the occupied Palestinian territory.

“We [Emek Shevah] are monitoring all kinds of activities of the Israelis in the West Bank,” Mizrachi said. “Based on previous and present cases that we know about, we have a lot of criticism in regards to which periods are being emphasized and narrated to the people.”

Mizrachi told Ma’an that there are those who attempt to identify the layers of ruins with a “specific culture of today,” labeling the area as a “Jewish site” or a “Muslim site.”

“In this land you might find an ancient synagogue, church or mosque, obviously it is very dear to a specific culture, but it doesn’t mean that you can claim sovereignty over it. It means that it is part of the heritage of a place and you should protect it according to the international convention,” Mizrachi said.

Court verdict

After lobbying efforts -- carried out by the Palestinian municipality, Tel Rumeida residents, Emek Shevah and Israeli rights group Breaking the Silence -- the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank agreed to cancel the lease of the site to an pro-settlement organization, Association for Renewed Jewish Settlement in Hebron, a few weeks ago.

However, this does not signal that the struggle in Tel Rumeida, or for archaeology throughout the occupied Palestinian territory, is over.

Rjoub spoke of a move to raise the issue with UNESCO due to the universal value of the site. “The international community has a responsibility to protect this site as part of everyone’s history”, he said.

“It’s not just Palestinian cultural heritage either -- this heritage is for all,” Rjoub added.

Seeing as archaeology does not conform to contemporary political borders -- such as Israel’s separation wall, the Green Line, or the West Bank’s delineation of Areas A, B and C -- conforming excavations to a framework of military occupation has rendered the practice problematic.

There is little structure in place to enforce accountability regarding archaeological conduct, and other sites such as as the City of David's national park in occupied East Jerusalem as well as the Tel Shilo national park have been criticized for their current management.

Israeli excavations in occupied Palestinian land appear to systematically abuse the occupation force’s power and flout International Law, whilst alienating Palestinians from their cultural heritage.

Sadly, Tel Rumeida is just one part of Israel’s wider and systematic ‘archaeological heart of darkness,’ a phrase coined by archaeologist Dr. Rafi Greenberg of Tel Aviv University, used to describe Israel’s archaeological violations that have continued in the Palestinian territory from 1967 until today.

Comments
Outlier / USA
Have Palestinians EVER conducted archaeologic digs on the land they control? If so, it was done very quietly. If archaeology is important, Palestinians should do it. For now, this is whining.
29/11/2015 18:08
Felixio / USA
Zionism, what a breed, humanity would be better without it.
29/11/2015 21:01
Horge / Spain
Hebron has a long and rich Jewish history and is the site of the oldest Jewish community in the world.
29/11/2015 21:42
Cathy / Australia
Hebron was settled by Jewish people, even before Jerusalem became the capital city of the Jews.
29/11/2015 21:45
Sefke / Netherlands
Ethnic cleansing by Isra�l is a common thing these days unfortunately
06/12/2015 15:28
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