Palestinian Authority: Israeli archaeological digs in West Bank a ‘crime’

PA calls for international fact-finding commission after top Israeli court rules that information on activities can remain secret.

May 22, 2019 22:08
3 minute read.
The "Bes-Vessel" discovered March 20th, 2019

The "Bes-Vessel" discovered March 20th, 2019. (photo credit: ELIYAHU YANAI/CITY OF DAVID)


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The Palestinian Authority’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has called archaeological digs carried out by Israel in the West Bank a “crime” and asked UNESCO as well as the World Travel & Tourism Council to establish an international fact-finding committee to look into the issue.

In a statement released Tuesday, the PA ministry warned archaeologists around the world against taking part in such excavations, arguing such a move “would expose them to legal accountability” and mar their academic record. The PA further asked museums and international institutions to examine all artifacts originating in Israel and refuse to accept any piece “stolen from occupied Palestinian land.”

The PA statement comes after Israel’s Supreme Court last week rejected an appeal submitted by two nongovernmental organizations and ruled that the state was under no obligation to release information about excavations in the West Bank. The names of the archaeologists involved can also remain secret. 

In its ruling, the court stated that there was a “clear and genuine concern” over “real” damage that could be inflicted on the professional and economic interests of the diggers, as well as the academic institutions they are affiliated with, due to the threat of an academic boycott.

“The right to information does not stand alone, but exists within a normative environment that includes other rights, values and interests,” the ruling read, adding that access to information that could harm the security of the state or the well-being of an individual need not be disclosed.

Officials involved in the case, who requested anonymity, told The Media Line that “the majority of those involved in these digs in the West Bank did not wish to have their names published.”

Jihad Yasin, director general of the Archaeological Excavations Department at the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, came out against the Israeli ruling and called the excavations in the West Bank “political, not scientific.”

“Archaeologists must do excavations in collaboration with local communities, and they have to publish [their findings] and not keep them a secret,” Yasin told The Media Line. “In a scientific excavation, the archaeologist wants people to know about [their work], but international law is against these kinds of digs in the case of the West Bank because it’s under occupation.”

Yasin asserted that while Israel conducts dozens of digs in the West Bank each year, very little is known about them or what has been unearthed. He revealed that the Palestinian Antiquities Ministry conducts excavations of its own in Area A, which are areas under full Palestinian control as per the Oslo Accords.

Two left-wing Israeli NGOs, Yesh Din and Emek Shaveh, filed the original petition under the Freedom of Information Act, calling on the Israeli government to reveal the locations of West Bank digs and the archaeologists working there. Such excavations take place under the auspices of Israel’s Civil Administration, which is part of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), a Defense Ministry body operating in the West Bank.

“The academic research taking place in the West Bank should be openly known and announced, [as it would be] inside Israel,” Yonathan Mizrachi, executive director of Emek Shaveh, told The Media Line. “When you’re talking about archaeological excavations in the West Bank and the location of the finds, it’s quite clear that there is a demand that they all remain in the West Bank and for the benefit of the local population.”

Mizrachi emphasized that this would be in keeping with international law, as defined by the Hague Convention on the Laws and Customs of War on Land. The Convention has two supplementary protocols from 1954 and 1999, which forbid an occupying power from removing artifacts of cultural heritage from an occupied territory. Israel is a signatory of the first protocol, but not the second, and also contests the claim that it is occupying the West Bank.

A spokesperson for the Civil Administration meanwhile told The Media Line that “any citizen wishing to know more about archaeological excavations can request information from the [Israeli] Ombudsman’s Office, and we will respond accordingly.”

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