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Stealing Palestinian History

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 25.02.2006:

This Week in Palestine

October 2005

By Kevin Chamberlain

While the world’s media has been concentrating on the hardships suffered by the Palestinian people as a result of the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, considerably less publicity has been given to the systematic destruction of Palestine’s rich cultural heritage resulting from the occupation.

Following the 1967 conflict when Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza there was intense archaeological activity. Objects were removed in two ways – officially by the Israeli occupation authorities, or clandestinely by individual Israeli soldiers, civilians and, unfortunately in some cases, even by Palestinians. Israeli military operations, the construction of settlements and their communicating roads, and more recently, the construction of The Wall, have meant that archaeological sites are constantly being uncovered. (It is estimated that there are around 4,000 such sites.) When a site is uncovered the Israelis institute a ‘salvage excavation,’ i.e. the rapid removal and recording of artefacts before the site is covered up. In most cases this results in the destruction of the site, although occasionally the site is covered up but not destroyed for future investigation, e.g. in the case of an important mosaic floor. Nevertheless the effect of these ‘salvage excavations’ is that the all-important context of the site is destroyed and the knowledge that it yields is lost forever. Such excavations fall under the authority of the archaeological staff officer, who is an officer of the Civil Administration (i.e. the Israeli military). There is anecdotal evidence that in conducting many of these ‘salvage excavations’ only objects of Jewish interest are removed and remains of other cultures either ignored or destroyed. It is also alleged that Israeli excavations in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPTs) are politically motivated, namely, to uncover evidence of ancient Jewish settlement so as to bolster Israel’s current settlement policies. Conversely, it has been alleged that Jewish artefacts discovered by Palestinians are often destroyed or sold so as to remove any excuse the Israelis might have for constructing new settlements in the area where such artefacts may have been discovered.

In addition to officially sponsored Israeli archaeological excavations there is a flourishing illicit trade in Palestinian archaeological material through the removal of objects by individual Israeli soldiers or civilians acting on their own account, or removal by Palestinians selling material to Israeli or Palestinian dealers or to middle-men. Such material is then exported to Israel or to a third country where there is a ready market. There are a number of factors that fuel this illicit trade. These include inherent weaknesses in the legislation on both sides, a severe lack of police resources in those areas where the Palestinian Authority has responsibility for archaeological matters, the economic conditions in the OPTs resulting from the Israeli occupation, and vested interests on the Israeli side preventing the Israeli government taking tougher action to prevent the illicit trade. (It is perhaps no coincidence that Israel has refused to sign up to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, the principal world-wide international instrument designed to combat the illicit trade in cultural objects.)

Fortunately the location of many objects of significance removed in the course of the occupation is known. Cultural objects removed as a result of ‘salvage excavations’ are likely to have been recorded by the Israelis and the location of at least some of the important objects ascertainable from published sources or museum inventories. Other objects may have acquired a certain notoriety. For example, Moshe Dayan, the former general and Israeli defence minister, had a rapacious appetite for valuable archaeological finds. Dayan accumulated his extensive private collection through unauthorised and unscientific digs, both in Israel and in the OPTs, using Israeli soldiers and army helicopters. While acting as Minister of Defence he blocked important anti-looting legislation. The collection remained with Dayan until his death when his widow sold it to the Israel Museum for $1 million. The former mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, was also known to have been an avid collector of antiquities, some of which undoubtedly came from East Jerusalem and the other OPTs. However the vast majority of illegally removed objects is likely to be objects removed clandestinely by Israeli soldiers, civilians and regrettably Palestinians too. Such objects are most likely to have disappeared without trace, although evidence of their removal can in some cases be obtained from sources such as oral testimony of villagers. It is also likely that they have changed hands several times and their current owners bought them in good faith and have legal title. Although it is impossible to obtain accurate statistics, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in the Palestinian Authority estimates that about 200,000 archaeological artefacts were transferred annually during the years between 1967 and 1992 from the OPTs. Since 1992 current estimates put this figure at approximately 120,000 artefacts per annum. While a large number, such as oil lamps, is likely to be of minor importance there are also likely to be some items of significance within that figure. As occupying power, responsibility for such loss must rest with the Israelis.

In addition to the loss of Palestine’s movable heritage there has also been extensive damage to, and destruction of, immovable cultural heritage. The press release of the World Archaeological Congress issued on 7 January 2004 expressed concern at the destruction of archaeological and heritage sites in the OPTs by Israeli forces, mentioning Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron. More recently The Art Newspaper of 9 September 2005 condemned in strong terms the deliberate destruction of parts of the historic cities of Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron describing it as amounting to “a symbolic attack on the Palestinian presence in the territory.” The article reported that in the ancient city of Nablus the Al-Khadrah mosque had been 80% destroyed; the Al-Satoun and Al-Kabir mosques, converted Byzantine churches, had been 20% destroyed; 60 historic houses had been demolished (and 200 others partially demolished); the 18th-century eastern entrance to the old market had been destroyed; seven Roman cisterns and at least 80% of the paved streets had been ruined. UNESCO’s World Heritage office has condemned these acts of vandalism, describing them as “crimes against the cultural heritage of mankind.”

As belligerent occupier of the OPTs, Israel remains bound by what is known as “international humanitarian law.” In the context of the protection of the cultural heritage the most important instrument of international humanitarian law is the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, to which Israel is a party. This Convention obliges the Contracting Parties to refrain from launching any attack against cultural property unless strictly justified by military necessity. Contracting Parties must also prohibit, prevent and, if necessary, put a stop to, any form of theft, pillage or misappropriation of, and any acts of vandalism directed against, cultural property and to refrain from requisitioning movable cultural property. A Contracting Party in occupation must as far as possible support the competent authorities of the occupied country in safeguarding and preserving its cultural property. These provisions implicitly prohibit an occupying power from excavating and removing archaeological material from the territory it occupies.

Israel is also a party to the 1954 Hague Protocol for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. This instrument, among other matters, obliges a Contracting Party to prevent the exportation of cultural property from the territory it occupies and at the close of hostilities to return property that has been exported contrary to this provision to the competent authorities of the territory previously occupied.

As a belligerent occupier Israel is also bound by other relevant provisions of international humanitarian law, in particular the Fourth Geneva Convention 1949, the 1977 Additional Protocol I, as well as the 1907 Hague Regulations, all of which contain provisions which require, either expressly or implicitly, an occupying power to safeguard cultural property in the territory that it occupies.

There can be little doubt that Israel’s policies in relation to the cultural heritage in the OPTs amount to a breach of international humanitarian law. Of particular concern must be the deliberate destruction of the historic parts of Nablus, Bethlehem and Hebron where this is not justified by military necessity. Such action not only violates the 1954 Hague Convention but is expressly prohibited as a “war crime” under Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Conventions as well as under the Statute of the recently established International Criminal Court. No peace agreement could be complete unless the wrongs done to Palestinian cultural heritage by Israel are compensated and addressed in a satisfactory manner.

Finally, one may ask, why so much fuss over old buildings, relics and stones? These old buildings, relics and stones are part of the cultural heritage of Palestine. The destruction of a people’s cultural heritage amounts to the destruction of a people’s memory, its collective consciousness and identity. In other words it is ethnic cleansing by another name.

Kevin Chamberlain is a barrister and former Deputy Legal Adviser, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office; visiting senior lecturer in cultural property law, University College London; consultant to Adam Smith International advising the Palestinian Ministry of Antiquities; and author of ‘War and Cultural Heritage’ (Institute of Art and Law, 2004).

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