With God on My Side, Archeology as a Political Tool
Aref Assaf, PhD
Israel’s decision to designate two shrines in occupied Palestinian lands as its own heritage sites is a stark signal of its blatant and belligerent disregard for international law governing occupied territories. Israel has utilized old archeological sites as a vindication and a proof of its sovereignty, borders and political existence. The move further complicates US efforts to bring the Palestinians to the negations table to resolve the decades-long conflict. Israeli actions in recent weeks confirm the futility of trying to negotiate peace with an Israeli state that wages war on the idea that the Palestinian people have national rights in the same land that Israel claims as its exclusive patrimony.
The two shrines—the Tomb of the Patriarchs, known to Muslims as Al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron (YouTube) and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem—equally sacred to Muslims, Christians and Jews. The announcement is oxymoronic, for it comes almost fifteen years after the mosque served as the site of the 25 February 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim worshipers by Dr. Baruch Goldstein, an extremist Jewish settler.
The Palestinians fear that Israel, by declaring these sanctuaries as “Israeli heritage sites,” would restrict Muslims’ access to them, a fact Israel has disputed but one that I have personally witnessed during my many visits to the sites. Access to the mosque is restricted to the elderly and the very young. All visitors must go through humiliating checkpoints and personal inspection. More than 70% of the mosque’s grounds are off- limits to Muslims. Israeli soldiers, in full combat gear (grimy boots in tow), enter the mosque at will.
More importantly, all these sacred sites are in the West Bank, a territory that was occupied by Israel after the 1967 war. Given Israel’s proclivity for and history of territorial occupation, there are ample justifications for Palestinian and Arab concerns. Israeli actions have only strengthened awareness of its thinly-disguised intent to extend the frontiers of a Jewish state that has no place for or tolerance of Muslims. Admittedly, the Israeli decision does not change anything on the ground for the moment, because the Israeli Army totally controls the sites. Its significance lies in the message it sends: that if the Arab-Israeli conflict is ever resolved through negotiations, this will only happen according to rules dictated by Israel in accordance with Israeli-Zionist narratives.
The Palestinians view the nominal recasting as tantamount to stealing Islamic holy sites in order to change their character into a Jewish one. How this fits into Israel’s long-term agenda of consolidating control by forcible occupation and hoodwinking the world into believing what they want is clear. Why Israel thinks it may work is because it has been allowed to get away with its contemptible actions so far. The West has so far refused to curb Israeli aggression. But will the international community too stand and stare while Israel has its way? By including in its agenda religious sites that form the nerve-center of an ideologically-driven conflict, Israel can only hope to spark a bigger wave of inter-faith hatred and extreme reactions.
Attention should have been accorded to the shrines’ disputed status before declaring them as ‘Israeli heritage sites,’ accompanied by a $107 million restoration plan. This action is plainly and simply yet another example of the Israeli policy of forcible occupation and unilateral actions aimed at creating facts on the ground and impeding a just resolution to the conflict. As an occupying power, it does not have the authority to make such decisions. It makes one wonder what other wicked plans it may have on hold concerning Palestinians living in West Bank and even in Gaza.
The Palestinians view Israeli actions in this light – as part of a long process of evicting the Palestinians from their ancestral lands and making room for Zionist Jews to come from Europe and elsewhere and reclaim what they consider to be their ancestral land. Sincere efforts to negotiate a resolution to the conflict have failed and will continue to fail if the negotiation process largely reflects the same asymmetry on the ground that is manifest in the unilateral Israeli actions that we have recently witnessed on a continual basis.
That imbalance sees Israel maintain the status quo through its superior military arsenal, its ability to limit the movement of people in and out of Palestinian areas, and its reliance on unilateral actions that value only Israel’s own priorities, rather than the requirements of peacemaking through negotiations that affirm the validity of equal Israeli and Palestinian national demands.
The futility of negotiating peace under these conditions is obvious to any but the most politically blind. The two most important players dealing with the Palestinians – Israel and the United States – remain unwilling to come to terms with the single most important issue for the Arabs, which is the continuing ethnic cleansing and refugee status of the Palestinians. They refuse to deal seriously, if at all, with pivotal actors like Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The use of archeology as a tool for political directives has been a longstanding Israeli strategy to deny Palestinians their legitimate national and political rights. Linking land, populations, and power through the recovery of an artifact, it is no wonder that archeology is a loaded discipline. And yet, it is often overshadowed by more obvious political processes and motives. Excavating the discipline itself, acclaimed anthropologist and author of Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, 2001, Nadia Abu El-Haj examines the role archeology played within the Zionist project: a role that originated long before 1948 in order to map geographic space to Old Testament claims of Jewish ownership.
A careful reading of the book reveals the ways in which relics and their study have been deployed to alternately exclude, divide, and welcome those staking the claim in the Holy Land – and to familiarize new Israelis with a set of ready-made historical associations to be embraced as their own. Edward Said wrote of being indebted to the book and work of Abu El-Haj, in Freud and the Non-European (2003), offering that: “What she provides, first of all, is a history of systematic colonial archaeological exploration in Palestine, dating back to British work in the mid-nineteenth century. She then continues the story in the period before Israel is established, connecting the actual practice of archaeology with a nascent national ideology – an ideology with plans for the repossession of the land through renaming and resettling, much of it given archeological justification as a schematic extraction of Jewish identity despite the existence of Arab names and traces of other civilizations. This effort, she argues convincingly, epistemologically prepares the way for a fully fledged post-1948 sense of Israeli-Jewish identity based on assembling discrete archaeological particulars -scattered remnants of masonry, tablets, bones, tombs…”
Abu El-Haj’s book, a winner of many prizes, became a source of great controversy orchestrated by pro-Israel pundits in an attempt to denounce the author and to urge Columbia University, where she teaches, to deny her tenure.
For more than a hundred years, Zionist-leaning archeologists have been mapping historic Palestine to fulfill the biblical images of the land. Since the 1967 War, Israel has been trying to paint a picture of its biblical roots to East Jerusalem and especially the West Bank. In the case of Israel, archaeology does not reflect prevailing political beliefs and realities about the people and about the land but actually serves as an artifice that manufactures political beliefs and forms divisive constituencies of people.
The international community should wake up to this alarming situation. Failure to stop Israel at this point can only lead to deterioration of an already volatile situation.
Aref Assaf, Ph.D., is president of American Arab Forum, AAF. AAF is a think-tank based in Paterson, NJ specializing in Arab and Muslim Affairs.