Under pressure from ultra-orthodox Jews, the Israeli government has issued a legal order stating that no archaeological or scientific examination may be carried out in future on human remains, and all such remains - whether Christian, Muslim or Jewish - must be handed over to religious Jews for immediate reburial.
The ruling appears to be part of an effort by Israel's shaky coalition government to appease religious parties, which exercise considerable power.
So politically sensitive is the issue that the order has been passed amid great secrecy. But last week implementation began as ultra-orthodox Jews took away two truckloads of bones from the Rockefeller Museum, in Jerusalem, for burial.
Leading scientists and archaeologists say the damage to human science will be incalculable. "This is one of the richest areas of human fossils in the world. It is the world's heritage which is at stake," said Patricia Smith, professor of morphological sciences at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "What do these people want with the bones of Phoenicians or Philistines?"
Christopher Stringer, chief researcher in human origins at the Natural History Museum in London, said yesterday: "This is shocking. It is quite wrong for a group of modern extremists to have the power to remove the scientific pre-history of a region. These findings are of interest not just to Israel but to the world. In many cases the bones concerned are of prehistoric people living in the area who had nothing to do with present-day Jews. This is a form of religious censorship which is bad for science and for rationality."
Yesterday the Association of European Archaeologists in Jerusalem wrote to Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister, to protest at the move, saying the order put Israel out of step with most other countries.
"It is a gross infringement of scientific research in the area," said Father Jerry Murphy o'Connor, a professor of the New Testament at the Ecole Biblique, the French archaeological school in Jerusalem.
The dispute over Holy Land bones has erupted many times in recent years, sometimes resulting in confrontation as ultra-orthodox Jews have taken to the streets in violent demonstrations at the sites of excavations.
The religious Jews say that interfering with Jewish bones is contrary to Halacha - or Jewish law - under which strict rules are set out for the burial of the dead. Under a 1978 Israeli ruling archaeologists were allowed to excavate and study remains as long as they then handed them to the Ministry of Religious Affairs, which would pass them to the relevant religious denomination for burial.
Recently, however, powerful groups of extremists have campaigned for a change in the law, mobilising a "grave-watch" force called Atra Kadisha, which patrols excavation sites and intimidates archaeologists. Now lawyers for the Department of Education, which is responsible, has ordered the Israel Antiquities Authority to hand over all bones whether study has been completed or not.
Amnon Rubenstein, the Education Minister, and a member of Meretz, the secular left-wing party in the Labour coalition, approved the order, but was unavailable for comment yesterday.
"It is all about money and power," said one senior Israeli scientist, who added there appeared to have been a political pay-off, whereby the religious party, Shas, would show greater support for the government.Reuse content