Who’s Destroying Antiquities?

By: David M. Weinberg

Nov 18, 2011

Jews from around the world will celebrate their ancient heritage in Hebron this weekend, when the Torah portion known as “Chaye Sarah” is read in synagogues recounting Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpela (Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hebron as a family burial ground. The Bible relates that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and their wives were buried in the cave.

But now that the Palestinian Authority has been admitted to UNESCO as a “member state,” the Palestinian Authority plans to ask the organization to declare several sites in Jerusalem and the West Bank, including the Cave of Machpela, as international heritage sites belonging to Palestine, not Israel.

Furthermore, the PA plans to sue Israel for “stealing Palestinian antiquities.”

“We will take Israel to court for systematically destroying and forging Arab and Islamic culture in Jerusalem,” said Hatem Abdel Qader, former PA minister for Jerusalem affairs, after the UNESCO vote.

PA Minister of Tourism Khuloud Daibes alleges that Israel’s renovations of Jerusalem’s Old City walls and its intention to replace the crumbling Mughrabi Bridge at the southern entrance to the Temple Mount are hostile attempts to “change the Islamic and Arabic character of the city.”

If this weren’t so funny, it would be outrageous. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

Israel minted the international gold standard for unimpeded religious worship in Jerusalem, and for painstaking preservation of Moslem and Christian holy sites and archaeological sites across Israel. In civilized and professional circles, Israel is recognized as having contributed enormously to the excavation, study and preservation of Holy Land historical sites and relics.

By contrast, there is no Arab or Islamic country in the Middle East where Christians or Jews can truly freely operate religious institutions. Under Palestinian Authority and Hamas rule, Christians in the West Bank and Gaza have been hounded, terrorized and driven out. Christian Bethlehem is, effectively, no more. The Church of Nativity was defiled by Palestinian Muslim terrorists who turned it into an armed refuge in 2002. Churches in Gaza have been bombed and burned. Can you imagine how the churches of Jerusalem might fare under Palestinian rule?

Meanwhile, Jewish synagogues and holy sites in Jericho, Nablus and Gush Katif have been torched to the ground while Palestinian police looked on.

In 1996, Palestinian mobs assaulted Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, and Palestinian policemen on the scene shot and wounded the Israeli soldiers guarding the Tomb. Ever since, the site has been sheathed in high concrete barriers, turning it into a Fort Knox-like encampment. Then a Palestinian mob led by Palestinian policemen assaulted Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, torched the synagogue inside, and opened fire on Israeli troops at the site, killing 6 Israeli soldiers.

In 2000, Palestinian mobs once again attacked, killed one Israeli soldier, and destroyed the building. Palestinian forces again took part. The Shalom Al Yisrael synagogue in Jericho with its unique Byzantine-era mosaic floor was also torched. Today, Israelis have only sporadic access to the site.

As for Gush Katif, the wild Palestinian mob destruction of all the synagogues there is just too fresh and painful a wound to talk about….

Under PA rule, Tulul Abu el Alayiq, near Wadi Qelt and Jericho, has been left to decay. This is an important archaeological site where Hasmonian kings and Herod built their winter palaces, and it contains what may be the remains of the earliest synagogue in Israel. The nearby Naaran synagogue is threatened by Palestinian real estate developers who are building practically atop the site. Israeli archaeologists who have managed to visit there say that the PA has let the place rot.

The PA has also allowed villagers to encroach upon the important synagogue remains in Eshtemoa in the southern Mt. Hebron area. Neither Israeli archaeologists nor Israeli worshippers and tourists have access to the site (which is located in Area B), despite the fact that the Oslo Accords supposedly guaranteed this.

It is important to note that these three sites are specified by name in the appendices to the Oslo Accords, and defined as historical and religious sites which the PA is supposed to preserve, and to which they are supposed to provide access for Israelis.

Unfortunately, the Palestinians learnt from the Jordanians. Before 1967 Jews were not allowed to reach their holy places in Jerusalem at all; thousands of Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives were desecrated and the tombstones used to pave streets and latrines; and the synagogues of Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter were dynamited.

The greatest crime of all – an antiquities crime of historic proportions – has been committed over recent years by the Palestinian Wakf on the Temple Mount. In 1999, the Wakf dug out hundreds of truckloads of dirt from caverns known as Solomon’s Stables beneath the upper plaza (more than 1,600 square meters in area and 15 meters deep) without any archaeological supervision or records. Thousands of tons of earth rich in archaeological remains from all periods of the Temple Mount were haphazardly dumped into the Kidron Valley and the city garbage dump at El-Azaria. The Wakf also destroyed stonework done by Jewish artisans 2,000 years ago in the underground “double passageway.”

Thousands of years of layered history – Jewish history, of course – were gouged out the ground with heavy machinery and shoveled out of sight. UNESCO didn’t even burp.

Israeli archaeological students are still sifting through this precious rubble, and have found numerous antiquities from the First and Second Temple periods, including stone weights for weighing silver, and a First Temple period bulla (seal impression) containing ancient Hebrew writing which may have belonged to a well-known family of priests mentioned in the Book of Jeremiah. Other findings are from the late period of the Kings of Judea (8th and 7th centuries BCE), including about one thousand ancient coins, jewelry made of various materials, stone and glass squares from floor and wall mosaics, and many other items.

The Wakf has also allowed the destruction destroying Christian relics on the Temple Mount, including the Crusader pillars of the 13th century Grammar Dome in the southwestern corner of the Mount, and Crusader-era Chain Gate. According to the 1978 Law of Antiquities, it is forbidden to perform any “alteration, repair or addition to an antiquity located on the site,” but that hasn’t stopped the Wakf from sanctioning the haphazard addition of concrete and stone to these architectural relics, drilling holes into them, spray painting them, chopping through them for electricity cables, and more.

There is little doubt that Palestinian authorities are conducting this assault on the Temple Mount so as to erase any vestige of archeological evidence for Jewish (and Christian) history. “In Arabic, this practice is known as as Tams al-ma’alem, which means ‘erasing the signs’ in the sense of destroying the relics of all cultures that preceded Islam,” asserts Dr. Mordechai Kedar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.

And now the PA is going to sue Israel for antiquities theft? Inconceivable! Such chutzpa.

* Originally published (in different versions) in Israel Hayom and The Jerusalem Post on November 18, 2011.

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About David Weinberg

David M. Weinberg is a spokesman, speechwriter, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »


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