Amid Row Over Arab-Israeli Future, A Quiet Tussle: Who Owns the Past?

Archaeologist Ehud Netzer has unearthed the plush, recreational hub of King Herod's summer palace. His latest excavation of the 2,000-year-old compound uncovered swimming pools, saunas, and baths embellished with mosaics and frescoes.

Dr. Netzer is still looking for the tomb of the "King of Judea." Roman historical sources say that Herod is buried here at the enormous retreat that he built for himself. But Netzer, a Herodian expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has been working on this site on and off since 1972, may never fulfill his dream of finding the king's burial place.

Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists, scholars, and curators are waging a quiet battle for ownership of ancient sites and artifacts that make the soil here as rich with history as other Middle Eastern countries are with oil.

With 18,000 known points of interest, Israel and the Occupied Territories have a higher concentration of archaeological sites than anywhere else in the world. Herod constructed more than a few.

Though Christian and Jewish Scriptures depict Herod - who ruled from 37 BC until around the time of Jesus' birth - as a ruthless despot, archaeologists credit the "Great Builder" with dotting the Holy Land and other reaches of the Roman Empire with structures.

Some lie in modern-day political hot spots. Herodium, southeast of Bethlehem in the West Bank, is surrounded by Palestinian and Bedouin Arab villages. Though this is "Area C," according to the Oslo peace accords, and will temporarily remain under Israeli control, its ownership is up for negotiation. Palestinians expect to gain it in a peace settlement.

"This area is open to different wishes and different ideas," Netzer says as he looks west to the hills of Jerusalem and Bethlehem on the horizon. "I think archaeology is above everything," things like politics and borders, he adds.

Battle for digging rights

But in a place where two peoples are still trying to work out a way to share one land, it's difficult to keep politics out of academics. Though this is a discipline where rocks are dug and not thrown, the two sides' positions seem ages apart, and won't be resolved until the political leaders restart the peace process and commence "final status" talks. In recent days, the United States has increased pressure on the sides to reach a final settlement soon.

Palestinians have traditionally said that they view all Israeli digging in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, as illegal. Arabs accuse Israelis of treasure-hunting and using archaeology to confiscate land and make nationalistic claims.

But relations between the two sides have evolved somewhat. A section on archaeology in the Oslo accords tried to pave the way for issues to be negotiated amicably.

Yousef Abu Taa, deputy head of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, says the accords do allow Israeli digs in Area C at places such as Herodium. However, according to the Palestinian Authority (PA) interpretation of the accords, any artifacts the Israelis uncover must be documented and eventually transferred to the Palestinians. "Everything must be returned when the occupation is over," Mr. Taa says in a conversation at the PA's new archaeology headquarters in Ramallah. "The Oslo accords said that all of these artifacts must return to the Palestinian Authority."

The Palestinians base their claim on The Hague conventions from the 1950s, which prohibit the removal of cultural artifacts by an occupying power. Israel is a signatory to that agreement, and even set a precedent for compliance when it agreed to return the spoils of its wars with Egypt - artifacts excavated in the Sinai Peninsula.

But Israel argues that on the basis of those same conventions, many of the sites and artifacts they've discovered in the West Bank - the biblical land of Israel - are distinctly Jewish in origin. As pieces of their national heritage, therefore, they should stay in Israeli hands.

One of the most sensitive aspects of this debate was underscored two weeks ago, as Israel opened a conference marking 50 years since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Old Testament texts, psalms, and commentaries were written on parchment two millennia ago and hidden in caves.

Palestinians say that since the texts were found in the West Bank, they belong to them.

Israel bought some of the scrolls, but gained another portion of them after winning control in 1967 of East Jerusalem and its Rockefeller Museum, which held some of the documents.

The Palestinians say this amounts to acquisition by "theft."

"We believe that the Dead Sea Scrolls have important information, not just to Israelis or Palestinians. It's a historic artifact that belongs to whole world," Taa says.

But Israel - which keeps some of the Hebrew and Aramaic texts in a bomb-proof, low-lit chamber called the "Shrine of the Book" - considers the scrolls vital possessions too precious to consider negotiable.

"From a national point of view, the scrolls are part of the Jewish Bible, so we consider them as part of our heritage that was formed over millennia here," says Caroline Glick, a member of the Israeli negotiating team on archaeology. "Our position is that the artifacts found after 1967 will not be returned to the Palestinians."

Grounds for optimism

Despite all the wrangling, there has been an increase in cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists. For example, Israel is conducting a dig at the ancient Samaritan site of Mt. Gezirim outside of the self-ruled Palestinian city of Nablus and employs some 300 Palestinians there.

The site is of interest to both peoples because, although today's Samaritans speak Arabic and consider themselves Palestinians, they are also a Jewish religious sect that broke from the rest of Judaism nearly 2,500 years ago.

Yitzhak Magen, who is in charge of that dig and also heads Israel's negotiating team on archaeology, says that he is asking his Palestinian counterpart for permission to work in areas under the PA's civilian control. In the end, the real mountains to climb are still political ones, he says. "I think these will be hard negotiations, but if they will solve all the problems of land and water, we will find a solution for the smaller problem of archaeological finds," he says. "The artifacts of Judea and Samaria are not the hardest problems to solve."

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