Palestinian fury at Israeli 'relic looting'

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HIGH ON a crumbling cliff, overlooking the Jordan Valley, General Amir Drori, director of the Israeli Antiquities Authority, surveys his troops with the satisfaction of a commander watching a successful advance.

Scouring the cave mouths of the Israeli-occupied West Bank from Qumran to Jericho, 20 teams of archaeologists, armed with picks and white masks against the dust, swept forward in 'Operation Scroll'. Their aim is to uncover new texts to add to the Dead Sea Scrolls, the ancient Hebrew and Aramaic writings first found here in 1947.

But Gen Drori's campaign, launched just a month before Israel is due to commence its withdrawal from the occupied territories, has outraged Palestinians who see it as an exercise in last-minute looting.

Early next year Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, plans to move to Jericho and stake his claim to the cultural heritage of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Archaeology would be a big money-spinner for any future Palestinian state. So Jericho, sitting in the cradle of ancient civilisations, is about to become one of the great tourist centres of the region.

The Israelis claim that this sudden archaeological drive is motivated purely by scholarly and scientific interest. Looting of these caves, largely by the local Bedouin, has been on the increase, and valuable artefacts are reported to have been turning up on the black market.

They do not trust the incoming Palestinian authority to treat the relics with what they regard as the proper respect. 'I will be very happy if the Palestinians have their own state here. But we don't want these valuable relics to be lost for ever,' said Uzi Dahari, a leader of one of the excavation teams.

So far the drive has uncovered a 5,000-year-old skeleton, apparently belonging to a 40- year-old Canaanite soldier, and a bow, arrow and knife nearby. Elsewhere, Hebrew-inscribed papyrus documents were discovered. In one cave, a young archaeologist found the remnants of a comb that he said must have belonged to a refugee who fled to the caves during the Jewish revolt against the Romans in the 1st century AD.

In the valley below, Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars watch bemused, as an archaeological patrol of Jeeps, laden with metal detectors, files past. The call to prayer from the mosques echoes in Gen Drori's ears and Palestinian flags are waved in his face.

Palestinian scholars, however, are far from bemused. 'Its a gold rush. The timing is outrageous,' said Jasmin Zaharan, head of the Institute of Islamic Archaeology in Jerusalem. 'They clearly still feel they have to prove something. We have lived here for 5,000 years. The archaeology is our identity.'

The controversy over Operation Scroll has fuelled demands that all records of archaeological artefacts uncovered by Israel in the areas of Jericho and the Gaza Strip be surrendered to the new Palestinian authority, while an independent survey of sites is made throughout the West Bank.

Under the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, relics found by Israel in Sinai were handed back to Egypt. This raises the prospect that the Palestinians will demand the return of the Dead Sea Scrolls themselves.

According to international law, Israel has always been barred from excavating the lands it has occupied since 1967. The 1954 Hague Convention, to which Israel is a signatory, protects 'cultural property'. In particular, it stresses that nothing excavated should be removed. The rules of Unesco, the United Nations cultural body, also bar outside powers from carrying out archaeological excavations on occupied lands.

Israel, however, has largely ignored the conventions, setting up a special archaeological department for the occupied territories soon after 1967, and carrying out a series of big excavations, in which finds have been removed to Israel. In some cases, Israeli archaeologists claim that the excavations were necessary as 'salvage' operations and therefore exempt.

To date, the Palestinians have been unable to prevent such digging. They also do not have the resources to set up their own archaeological excavations. But in the past year, the Institute of Islamic Archaeology has been established with a view to training Palestinian archaeologists to claim their own 'cultural heritage'. 'We have been out of the field since 1967,' says Mrs Zaharan. 'Islamic archaeology has fallen into terrible neglect.'

While the announcement of Operation Scroll on 14 November came as a suprise, the Israeli Antiquities Authority insists that Gen Drori had been planning it for four years. 'It was his dream to go out and look for more scrolls. In the end the time ran out.'

The commander of Israel's northern invasion front during the Lebanon war of 1982, Gen Drori fits a tradition of Israeli soldier-archaeologists, the most notable - and controversial - being Moshe Dayan. Certainly, Gen Drori appears to have planned the Jordan dig like a military campaign. A 100km stretch of desert and 400 caves have been surveyed.

Whatever Gen Drori's motivation, he has placed archaeology on the bargaining table. Ironically, he has also given Palestinians hope: in rushing to excavate in Jericho, the general has led them to believe that Israel must be serious about giving back the land.