Why Are Those Men in Black Camping Near the Wall?

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Issue . 33
P. 3
Why Are Those Men in Black Camping Near the Wall?


An Israeli ‘archeological dig’ along the path of the wall in al-Jib in the West Bank. Al-Jib is the site of 7th-8th century wine cellars and has been identified as the Biblical ‘Gibeon’ through Hebrew inscriptions found by James Pritchard in 1956. The modern village is home to some 5,000 Palestinians who will be encircled by the wall Israel is building through the West Bank.

Two colleagues on an early autumn walknear Bir Nabala, a Jerusalem-area villagenow cut off from Jerusalem by the WallIsrael is constructing through the WestBank, asked themselves this question andwondered whether to investigate. Despitethe looming presence of the Wall, theirwalk had been pleasant. A Palestinian mantending his orchard had provided a bag ofpomegranates; workers at a stone quarryinvited them for tea and told stories of their problems of living in Hebron and workingnear Ramallah–the ‘absence of movement’ tales that often dominate Palestinian interchange.

Our colleagues, a sociologist and ananthropologist, always have theirinvestigative antenna out, so the Men inBlack had likewise to be interrogated. They were forthcoming but the informationthey gave was disturbing: they announcedthemselves Druze police attached to theIsraeli army and charged with guarding atemporary archaeological ‘dig’ along the course of the Wall. “It’s all ours,” they explained, waving their hands over the land andwhat lay beneath it. 1

When the Men in Black declared “It’s all ours,” they were in violation of international law (particularly the Fourth Geneva Convention) but nonetheless operating within thebounds of a certain kind of Israeli legality. In an important new book, Eyal Weizman points out that “on the same day that Arab Jerusalem and the area around it was annexed to Israel, the Israeli government declared the archaeological and historicalsites in the West Bank, primarily those of Jewish or Israelite cultural relevance, to be the state’s ‘national and cultural property’, amounting to de facto annexation of the ground beneath the Occupied Territories, making it the first zone to be colonized.”2

The manner in which Israeli law undergirds illegal activity in this colonized zone–and the destruction of the non-renewable resource of the cultural heritage of Palestine–concerns a number of authors in this special issue of Jerusalem Quarterly. New opportunities for archaeological looting provided by the construction of the Wall are carried out by agents of the Israeli state, and accompany the “matrix of control” (Jeff Halper’s phrase) represented by the Wall. Similarly, the construction of Road 6, whose north-south course also produces more annexation of West Bank land, was accompanied by Israeli ‘salvage archaeology’ that yielded a range of “material objects…sherds and ceramics and an extensive cemetery…variously attributed to periods ranging from the Iron Age, Persian, Hellenistic and Early Roman to late Byzantine.” 3

In his article in this volume, Adel Yahya notes that about 1,500 archaeological sites are isolated between the Wall (in its western course) and the Green Line, including over 250 ‘high potential’ sites–a tempting array indeed for Israel’s ‘salvage’ operations. These state operations are joined on the other side of the Wall by what Adel Yahya calls Palestinian ‘subsistence looters’, driven by poverty and enabled by the lackof Palestinian security and enforcement. Palestinians “looting in their backyard”are integrated into Israel’s ‘legal’ market of antiquities, where Yahya estimates they receive perhaps 1% of the value of the objects they offer.

Like Morag Kersel in this volume, Yahya opposes the legal trade in antiquities–both in Israel and Palestine–as a course that leads both to illegal looting and the destructionof a cultural heritage that belongs to all. Kersel offers a carefully-considered review of “the historical antecedents, the current practice, and the future initiatives” of culturalheritage law and the trade in antiquities, including Ottoman, Mandate and currentIsraeli legislation. While noting the inequities in the interim (Oslo) agreements, where Palestine is obligated to safeguard archaeological sites but there is no Israelireciprocity, Kersel examines the Palestinian Draft Cultural and Natural Heritage Law 2003 and cautions that confirming a legal trade in antiquities may further endanger aheritage already in peril. The Jerusalem Quarterly would welcome interventions on this critical question from its readers.

The looting and loss of Palestinian cultural and other property in 1948 is examinedin several contributions to this volume. In an illuminating piece, Gish Amit relates the ‘untold story’ of the fate of Palestinian libraries and books ‘abandoned’ in 1948 (and their depository in Israel’s national library), making the important point that “occupation and colonization does not end in taking over physical space. They achieve their fulfillment by occupying cultural space as well, and by turning the culturalartefacts of the victims into ownerless objects with no past.” Amit implicitly raises an important question that has not been fully addressed by concerned Palestinians:how to re-claim these objects, not simply physically as property, but also culturally as embodiments of patrimony. In a helpful review of the right of Palestinians to reparations for lost property inside Israel, legal expert Leila Hilal points out that“the fate of Palestinian properties inside Israel has often times been neglected forthe issue of the right of return,” but that the right of return and restitution are in fact,independent rights and that therefore, delving into issues of restitution does not forgo the right of return.

Reviews of two books address new scholarship on the 1948 war and its aftermath,as well as the destruction of cultural and other property. Raja Shehadeh reviews Ilan Pappe’s crucial new investigation of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in 1948, while Roger Heacock critiques the uneasy mixture of revelation and justificationin Raz Ketter’s Just Past? The Making of Israeli Archaeology. Ketter, a long-time employee of the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), uses IAA archives to document the Israeli army’s vast swath of destruction of archaeological, historical and other cultural sites not only during the 1948 war but for years afterwards, while largely defending the role of the IAA itself. Aside from the historical evidence, the recent approval of the IAA to allow construction of a Museum of Tolerance on the site of an ancient Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem’s Mamilla district raises questions about how professionalism and commitment to preservation of cultural heritage operates in thatstate institution.

A scholar who offered an alternative, pioneering and carefully-researched view of the history and role of Israeli archaeology in her 2001 book4–Barnard professor NadiaAbu El-Haj–was subjected last year not to an academic critique, but to a right-wingcampaign to deny her tenure, orchestrated by a Barnard alum who lives on an Israelisettlement. That the crass campaign met with failure is of some comfort amidst the many-pronged assaults on academic freedom (particularly of scholars on the MiddleEast) that has cast a pall on American campus life.

Other forms of silencing in our context are even more direct. On the occasion ofthe 40th anniversary of Jerusalem’s occupation (and illegal annexation), the Israeli Ministry of Interior prevented a conference on the subject, affixing a sign to the entrance of the hotel where the conference was scheduled that read: “According to the law applied in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip of 1995, which organizes activities, we order not to hold this conference in this hotel or anywhere else in the borders ofthe state of Israel.” Once again, a version of the law (this time the interim accords of1995!) is cited in the banning of expression or, in the idiom of this issue, the looting of cultural expression and historical truth. In addition to their specific interventions,we hope this issue makes a modest contribution to opening subjects that have eenforcibly closed.


1 Thanks to Jamil Hilal and Rema Hammami for sharing this story.
2 Weizman, Eyal 2007. Hollow Land: Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, London: Verso, p. 40.
3 Slyomovics, Susan 2007. “The Rape of Qula, a Destroyed Palestinian Village,” in Nakba: Palestine, 1948 and the Claims of Memory (eds. Ahmed Sa’di and Lila Abu Lughod), New York: Columbia University Press, 44-45.
4 Abu El-Haj, Nadia 2001. Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society. Chicago: University of Chicago.