Yamina Party head Naftali Bennett has compared the Palestinian Authority to the radical Islamic group ISIS in an English language video he put out to protest damage done to the outer wall of the biblical site of Joshua’s altar by Palestinian municipal workers.
“Imagine if ISIS would try to take apart the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower, what an uproar we would hear across the world,” Bennett said in the video, which he shot at the site located in Area B of the West Bank, under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority.
The Israeli Right and the settlers have hailed the hilltop altar as an archaeological site of major significance, but it has never been placed in a protective enclosure or set off as a national heritage site by either Israel or the PA.
Damage done to its exterior wall has quickly become part of the right’s battle in the West Bank, which they call Judea and Samaria, to ensure that Jewish archaeology remains in Jewish hands.
They have argued that the demolition was intentional and part of the PA’s drive to erase Jewish ties to the Land of Israel. The Palestinians, in turn, have apologized and stated that it was a worker’s accident that occurred during construction of a road between the town of Asira ash-Shamaliya and the Palestinian city of Nablus, also known by the biblical name of Shechem.
President Reuven Rivlin condemned the demolition, but politicians on the Left have not spoken out, nor has Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued any statement.
Bennett, a right-winger who has focused on positioning himself as a centrist politician, with plans to combat COVID-19 and the flagging economy, veered from his normal message to underscore this point.
“I am standing here on the hills of Samaria, on an ancient Jewish site, one of the most ancient Jewish sites ever discovered, 3,200 years old, on Joshua’s altar, on Mount Ebal.
“On this very mountain 3,200 years ago, the Jewish people came out of Egypt, across the Jordan River…came up through Nablus and met here for their last central meeting of the Jewish people before spreading across the land of Israel and building our national home over here.
“A few decades ago a famous archaeologist, Adam Zertal, discovered this altar and found evidence that it was the original Jewish altar.
“Unfortunately, just a few days ago, the PA started dismantling this location...That is a barbaric act that we have heard only from ISIS or radical Islamists, who wanted to take away ancient sites of other people.
“I can tell you now as the former defense minister of Israel, we will never let anyone touch our Jewish heritage, we will keep our heritage and keep our future,” Bennett said.
The left-wing archaeological group Emek Shaveh responded to Bennett’s statement noting that it was an attempt to justify placing archaeological sites in Area B under Israeli control.
“We strongly condemn any destruction of antiquities. In this case we decry the destruction of the outer wall of the archaeological site at Mount Ebal by a Palestinian contractor last week,” Emek Shaveh said.
“We regret that the PA, whose responsibility it is to supervise the contractors’ work in order to prevent such incidents, did not do so, with the result being damage to the site,” it added.
The organization recalled Zertal’s work in recovering the site, which it said dated to the early Iron Age, during which time Joshua led the Israelites into what was then Canaan.
“Zertal’s theory was not supported by research and the vast majority of archaeologists rejected it. Some of the theories identify a lookout tower on the site, others suggest that even if the site was an altar it is not Joshua’s altar, as Professor Zertal proposed,” Emek Shaveh said, adding that it had been “adopted by the settlers.”
Emek Shaveh also said that the reports of the damage had not been accurately portrayed.
“Contrary to how the destruction was presented by the settlers, the wall that was destroyed last week was an outer wall and not a part of the main structure. The contractor who paved the road thought it was a terrace and the mayor of the town of Asira ash-Shamaliya’s said they were unaware that the wall was part of the site,” Emek Shaveh said.