According to the map at the core of US President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century,” if and when a Palestinian state is established, hundreds of world heritage and archaeology sites will be removed from Israeli hands and placed under Palestinian jurisdiction. There is every reason to fear that this will accelerate the already-rampant takeover, “re-interpretation” and misappropriation of historic sites by the Palestinian Authority, and the tragic pattern of purposeful neglect that will facilitate even further looting and destruction of priceless sites and artifacts.
Recently, Yediot Aharonot revealed that, according to the “Deal of the Century” map, hundreds of heritage and archaeology sites in Judea and Samaria are slated to be removed from Israeli control and transferred to the jurisdiction of the proposed Palestinian state.
The full list of endangered sites was presented at a Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee hearing, initiated by MKs Shlomo Karhi (Likud), Matan Kahana (Yamina) and Moshe Arbel (Shas) to examine the steps taken by the Israeli government to combat the Palestinian takeover of Area C (the portion of Judea and Samaria placed under full Israeli jurisdiction under the Oslo Accords).
Regrettably, the challenges are so serious and the failure of the defense system to uphold the law in Area C so profound that the archaeological issue was not addressed. The question of Israel’s historical record is – or should be – part and parcel of the sovereignty debate, which, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminded us, is still underway.
There are some 6,000 sites of historical and archaeological importance in Judea and Samaria that are recognized by the scientific community, but only 2,300 or so have been officially declared protected archaeological sites. Despite this paltry percentage, the unparalleled importance to world history and heritage of the better-known and more thoroughly researched sites in Judea and Samaria is such that they are protected by explicit international treaties.
The Oslo Accords did not leave these questions to chance. After stipulating PA responsibility over archaeological sites in Areas A and B – the portions of Judea and Samaria placed under the PA – those responsibilities were clearly enumerated; here’s a brief excerpt of some of the relevant clauses:
• The Palestinian side shall protect and safeguard all archaeological sites, take all measures necessary to protect such sites and to prevent damage to them and take all precautions when carrying out activities, including maintenance and construction activities, which may affect such sites.
• A Joint Committee of experts from both sides shall be established by the CAC to deal with archaeological issues of common interest.
• The Palestinian side shall respect academic freedom and rights in this sphere.
• Subject to academic considerations, and in accordance with the law, when the Palestinian side grants excavation licenses to archaeologists, researchers and academics, it shall do so without discrimination.
• The Palestinian side shall ensure free access to archaeological sites, open to the public without discrimination.
• Each side undertakes upon itself to respect sites in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip which are regarded as holy, or which hold archaeological value.
• Each side shall have the right to raise issues relating to those sites before the Joint Committee which will consider the issue raised and reach an agreement upon such issue.
The agreement then goes on to list sites of exceptional archaeological and historical importance to the Israeli side and calls for full cooperation regarding these sites in particular.
While these provisions sound extremely thorough and detailed, they have never been worth the paper on which they were printed. The Joint Committee was never formed, the “cooperation” never materialized, and the PA continues to engage in the systematic erasure of sites that bear testimony to the Jewish connection to the Land of Israel.
A few examples suffice to illustrate the disastrous situation and to dispel any doubt as to what lies ahead: The first is the ancient synagogue at Samu’a, site #1 on the Oslo Accords list, which has been vandalized and damaged repeatedly. It is located in the center of the Arab village of the same name, and is under PA jurisdiction. Israelis – scientists, worshipers, tourists, inspectors – are able to access the site only with extremely complicated and rare security arrangements. As the attached photos can attest, the vandalism bears a strong antisemitic slant, and the PA has not merely failed to prevent this vandalism, it has also failed to restore this and other similar sites, or to enable access to it as required by the Oslo Accords.
A second example is Tel Aromah, located in Area B (the portion of Judea and Samaria placed under Palestinian jurisdiction for non-security matters). Tel Aromah is one of a chain of eight Hasmonean-era fortresses (142-63 BCE) built by the Maccabean dynasty to protect the Jewish State and its heartland in Judea and Samaria. These massive and imposing fortresses (item #6 on the Oslo Accords list) have been the object of massive and imposing destruction at the hands of the Palestinian Authority, which has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into “rebranding” Tel Aromah as a “Palestinian Heritage Site.” Most recently, the PA took advantage of the coronavirus shutdown of Israeli oversight and enforcement, and paved an access road to the site, plowing over a section of the fortress wall and destroying the water cisterns that served the inhabitants of the fortress over 2,000 years ago. The PA also paved over an area at the top of the ridge in order to install a massive Palestinian flag and set up tents that are now manned 24/7 to facilitate the Palestinian presence at the site.
A third example is the ancient altar at Mount Ebal (Tel El-Burnat), located in Area C. This site, surveyed and excavated by Prof. Adam Zartal in the 1980s, dates to 1250 BCE, and is identified as the altar constructed by Joshua, the first site of cultic practice and institutionalized Jewish worship in the Land of Israel. Due to its historic, scientific, symbolic and religious significance, the leadership of the village declared war on the site, which is now presented as a “Palestinian Heritage Site.” The Qalandiya Ranch – illegal construction on a massive scale in Area C (which is purportedly under Israeli control), now stands on the precise area of the archaeological tel (and not for want of available open spaces for construction - the surrounding area is completely open, and the PA has within its jurisdiction massive land reserves for which it could and should issue permits). The cultic site is disappearing and history is being expunged.
Another site that has been given a new narrative and identity by the PA is Sebastia, the Arab name for Shomron (Samaria) – the capital city of the northern Israelite kingdom founded in the 9th century BCE. Recently, Sebastia was inaugurated as an official Palestinian Tourism Site, and is open to the public (the UN invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in this “Palestinian Heritage Site”). Local visitors and tourists from around the world who visit the site are exposed to a completely Palestinian narrative, and no mention whatsoever is made of the Jewish connection to the site or the region, to the independent Jewish Kingdom of which Samaria was the seat of government, or to the biblical connections to the city and its environs. No mention is made of the important Christian links to the site, and the Church of St. John the Baptist, a beautiful Byzantine-era structure said to be the burial place of the apostle’s head, has been defaced, and now lies in ruins; other cathedrals-turned-mosques in Sebastia have received new “interpretations” in PA tourism guides.
Finally, the case of Archilais, an impressive regional center in the Jordan Valley dating back to the Hasmonean Era. The city was named for Herod Archilaus, who came to power after the death of his father Herod the Great in 4 BCE, and ruled over one-half of the territorial dominion of his father. Today, the city is nothing more than a pile of indistinct rubble, reduced beyond recognition by incessant, massive and brutal “reclamation” that goes far beyond the ability of individual treasure-seekers.
Following the rollout of the Trump plan, Preserving the Eternal – a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of the archaeological treasures scattered throughout Judea and Samaria – was contracted by the Shiloh Policy Forum to conduct an emergency survey of 365 major antiquities sites that bear particularly important testimony to Israel’s national heritage.
Of the sites surveyed for this project, 258 are located in what is currently Area C. According to the conceptual maps released with the US plan, some 30% of these sites will be part of the future Palestinian state; 135 heritage sites currently under Israeli control will be reassigned to Palestinian jurisdiction. Notable among these are the Hasmonean Fortress at Horkania in the northern Judean Desert, the Hasmonean Fortress at Kypros in the Jordan Valley, the Hasmonean palaces near Jericho, the biblical city of Shomron (Samaria-Sebastia), the altar of Joshua on Mount Ebal, Tel Beitar, Tel Maon and Tel Hebron.
The overwhelming majority of antiquities sites in Judea and Samaria already suffer from constant vandalism and looting; there is every reason to fear that these trends will be exacerbated if jurisdiction is transferred to the Palestinian Authority, which is intent on obliterating the physical record of Jewish connection to the Land of Israel.
“Unfortunately, in the last 20 years, the State of Israel has not maintained its heritage sites,” says Eitan Melet, field coordinator for the Preserving the Eternal Project. “Priceless archaeological sites have been neglected by the government and have been relegated to a place of shame on the list of national priorities. Four thousand years of history should be treated with far more respect. It is time our decision-makers give their full attention to Israel’s national heritage sites and take whatever steps are necessary to maintain them, even if this requires allocating more resources or adjusting the map here and there.” “The Oslo Accords’ stipulations on preservation of and access to world heritage treasures have been completely ignored; it is safe to say that at least in this respect, the Oslo Process has been an abject failure,” says Meir Deutsch, director-general of Regavim. “Many sites are on the verge of being lost forever to the scientific community, and other major sites have been targeted by the Palestinian Authority for takeover and ‘repurposing’ as ‘Palestinian heritage sites.’” The only way to protect these irreplaceable treasures is to extend Israeli sovereignty over as much of the territory as possible, as quickly as possible. This would automatically impose Israel’s stringent antiquities protection laws to these sites and place them under the auspices of Israel’s Antiquities Authority. The alternative – reflected in the “Deal of the Century” map – is clear: The physical remains of biblical history will be decimated under Palestinian custodianship.
Unfortunately, recent history leaves no doubt as to the reliability of Islamist regimes when it comes to protecting, preserving and providing free access to non-Islamic sites and artifacts. On the other hand, Israel has a proven record of insuring full freedom of access and religious worship to members of all faiths. Only under Israeli law have all peoples of the world enjoyed free and unfettered access to our shared world heritage and religious sites, and only under Israeli custodianship will continued religious and scientific freedom in the Land of Israel be guaranteed. Future generations will not forgive us if we fail to preserve our shared heritage by placing its preservation under Israeli law – today. The writer is director of the International Division of Regavim, a research-based think tank and lobbying group dedicated to the protection and preservation of Israel’s sovereignty.