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Israel can't use archaeology to justify colonialism and dispossession

Israel's entanglement of archaeology and politics is a dangerous trend

Ever since the Zionist project succeeded in its endeavour to create a homeland for Jews in Palestine, the Palestinians have faced daily attempts by Israel to deny their rights and belonging to the land. Those take many forms including general references to biblical times, the spiritual connection between the Jews and historic Palestine culminating in the "God gave us this land".  It is "in the Bible".

The inference is that all the land between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea belongs to the Jews, Jerusalem is the "eternal united Capital" of the "Jewish People," and the West Bank is "Judea and Samaria".  Collectively, those are meant to demonstrate that the connection of Jews to the land is much stronger than any other group, including Palestinians. Israeli politicians use this to argue that there is no occupation as Jews are simply returning to their homeland.

Today, there is no lack of symbols of the history of the three great monolithic religions in historic Palestine, and Jerusalem has these in abundance within a tiny area that is home to the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Every year, thousands of worshippers head to the Holy Land on pilgrimage, mainly Jews and Christians. However, thousands more Muslims would also make the journey if peace prevailed and they were allowed to visit their third holiest mosque, Al-Aqsa.

The above background not only shows the importance of historic Palestine to the three religions but also the potential for many millions to visit each year, bringing substantial economic benefits to Jews, Christians and Muslims. For this to happen it is important for peace to be achieved but also for the history of the land to be preserved for current and future generations.

The party that is responsible for these, as a state power and also as an occupying power, is Israel. Its discharge of this responsibility is at best suspect but in reality it has embarked on a process of systematically bringing to the forefront the Jewish history of the land and either hiding or in some cases erasing the other inhabitants' connection. 

When Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967, the occupation forces initially raised the Israeli flag on the Al-Aqsa mosque, but this was subsequently removed. However, they quickly moved to bulldoze the Moroccan quarter of Jerusalem, including a number of mosques, to allow easier access for Jews to the Western Wall, which they refer to as the Wailing Wall.

Since then, Israel has embarked on a major archaeological project in this sensitive area and also in other less sensitive areas in its attempt to uncover evidence of the existence of Jews on the land after their exodus from Egypt and to use this as a means of justifying their claim to modern day historic Palestine.

The Israelis are particularly keen to unearth evidence that the first and second temples existed on the site of the Al-Aqsa mosque. Ever since occupying East Jerusalem, they have been digging around and under the site, giving rise to great concerns by Palestinians and Jordan that the digs could disturb the foundations of the mosque, hastening its collapse. Excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority are also thought to be endangering homes in the Palestinian Silwan district of Jerusalem which borders the southern edge of the Al-Aqsa mosque.

If the digging were simply carried out for historic reason only then it could be argued that, provided it were done carefully, it could be tolerated by Palestinians. However, this area, which right-wing Israelis refer to as the City of David, is one that they want to take over, effectively separating the Al-Aqsa mosque from one of its closest Palestinian neighbourhoods. 

The use of archelogy in Israel to delegitimize the connection of non-Jews to the land and to legitimize Israel's colonialist project is not restricted to right-wing organisations. In 2013 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed as "magnificent" the discovery of an ancient golden medallion in Jerusalem.  He claimed "It is interesting that even then, over 500 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, we see the menorah in an original illustration. This is historic testimony, of the highest order, to the Jewish People's link to Jerusalem, to its land and to its heritage – menorah, shofar, Torah scroll.” 

In 2015, Education Minister Naftali Bennett used his Facebook page to send a “Memo to [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas and others who scream 'occupation': A 3,000 years old jug bearing the inscription Ishba'al son of Beda was recently discovered near Beit Shemesh. Ishba'al is a name mentioned in the Tanach (Bible) and is unique to the period of King David. This is yet another example of the many facts on the ground that tell the story of the Jewish state that flourished here in this land 3,000 years ago. Back then there was communities that collected taxes, had a strong economy, provided transportation, education institutions, a military - just like today. A nation cannot occupy its own land.”

State institutions can also find themselves embroiled in controversy when venturing into historic symbols. Most recently, the authenticity of the musical image on the Bank of Israel's half shekel coin was questioned. The “kinnor” or lyre, which looks like a harp, gave this coin a distinctive and historic look. The musical instrument appears above an inscription on a stone seal that was uncovered in 1979 and was dated to the 7th Century BCE Kingdom of Judea.

The Bank of Israel minted the lyre shape on the coin in 1985, and it remains on it to this day.  However, Haaretz recently reported that many archaeologists believe this to be a fake seal, a forgery, placing the Bank of Israel in a tricky position. Should it withdraw the coin or continue with it as legal tender?

Its response was that: “There is no proof that the seal 'Belonging to Maadana, the daughter of the king' is not authentic. And even if so, that's of no importance in terms of the coin itself, many years after it was minted. The public can rest assured that the coin in its hands is legal tender for all intents and purposes.”

The entanglement of archaeology and politics in Israel is a dangerous trend which seems to have escalated as Israeli society and politics has moved to the right and as Israeli politicians manoeuvre the conflict form a political to a religious one. However, nobody, including the Palestinians, denies that Jews lived in Palestine a couple of millennia ago or that they have a spiritual connection to it. 

However, other groups have claims too. Before the Jews came to Palestine it was inhabited by the Canaanites. Christianity was born in Palestine, and therefore Christians also have a strong connection to it, and more recently Muslims conquered it in the 630s and have inhabited ever since.

Historic Palestine is referred to as the Holy Land because it is holy to the three monolithic religions. Denial of this attachment to any group is selfish and wrong. Attempts to better understand the history, including through archaeology, are important, but so too is honesty.

- Kamel Hawwash is a British/Palestinian engineering professor based at the University of Birmingham and a long-standing campaigner for justice, especially for the Palestinian people. He is Vice Chair of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and appears regularly in the media as commentator on Middle East issues. He runs a blog at www.kamelhawwash.com. He writes here in a personal capacity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Workers from the Israeli Antiquity Authorities dig on 3 November, 2015 at the excavation site near the City of David adjacent to Jerusalem's Old City walls (AFP).