July 22, 2005

Israel plans official looting of Palestinian artefacts for “protection”

Posted at 9:33 pm in Similar cases

It appears that as Israel withdraws from Gaza they plan on taking many artefacts with them. The justification for this is that they will be better looked after, a reasoning that is bad enough when post-rationalised by the British Museum, but is even worse when it is planned as a strategy today, with no regard for the wishes of the owners of the artefacts.

Jerusalem Post

Jul. 21, 2005 1:08 | Updated Jul. 21, 2005 15:49
Palestinians: Israel to steal artifacts
Palestinian archaeologists say they fear that when Israel withdraws from Gaza it will also take priceless archeological artifacts. Israeli officials have acknowledged this is a possibility.

A military installation in the northwestern tip of the Gaza Strip surrounds a sixth century Byzantine church, discovered in 1999 by an Israeli archaeologist. The well-preserved 1,461-year-old church, which measures 13 by 25 meters, has three large and colorful mosaics with floral-motifs and geometric shapes. Nearby is a Byzantine hot bath and artificial fishponds.

The most impressive mosaic is a multi-colored medallion at the entrance to the church. Its inscription says that the church was called St. John (after John the Baptist) and its foundations were laid in 544. It also praises Victor and Yohanan, the mosaic’s donors.

According to international law, it is illegal for an occupying power to remove ancient artifacts, movable and immovable, from the land.

But Israel accuses the Palestinians of being unable to safeguard ancient sites in the West Bank’s Areas A and B, under Palestinian control, where looting by Palestinians is common and most of the looted items are sold to Israelis.

“Most of the stolen antiquities come from the Palestinian [controlled] areas A and B,” said Hananya Hizmi, deputy of Israel’s Department of Antiquities in Judea and Samaria.

“We know because all of the antiquities come from Arab villages. There are no Arab villages in [Israel-controlled] Area C, only military camps and Jewish communities.”

Dr. Moain Sadeq, director general of the Department of Antiquities in Gaza and a professor of archaeology at the Islamic University in Gaza, said the Palestinians’ concern stems from the 1974 removal by Israel’s Antiquity Authorities of a sixth century Byzantine mosaic from Gaza City, called “King David Playing the Lyre,” which now decorates the synagogue section of the Israel Museum.

“Probably it was done to preserve the mosaic,” said Israel’s Hizmi. “Maybe there was an intention to return [the mosaic] and it didn’t work out. I don’t know why.”

Hizmi said that, by law, Israel has the right to preserve the antiquities and confirmed that the removal of the John the Baptist mosaic is a possibility they will be considering, based on how the dismantling of the military base goes.

“No decision has been taken yet to remove the mosaic,” said Hizmi. “We will do everything possible to prevent any damage to the antiquities.”

Hizmi said the mosaics would be removed to prevent damage. “It is something that definitely can be done on the spot. We will stop the work and remove it if necessary.”

Palestinian officials said that removal of the mosaics at the church would be harmful to peace.

“We hope that the withdrawal will be a step toward peace, where people can really see some hope,” said Dr. Hamdan Taha, Palestinian Authority deputy minister of Tourism and Antiquities. “Taking the mosaics will make the situation worse. If it happens, it will be another great mistake and a clear violation of international law.”

The Palestinians also dismiss Israel’s claims about looting in the territories, with Taha saying that “the plundering is concentrated in Area C, because there is a total collapse of the Israeli security system. In Area C there are more than 800 archaeological sites out of a total of 1,700 in the West Bank.”

The problem of antiquity-theft is because of Israel’s antiquities law, Palestinians said. Dr. Adel Yahya, a Palestinian archaeologist and the director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange, said the law encourages people to steal artifacts from the territories, because Israel allows sale and trade in antiquities but does not allow excavations without permission.

“This means that, where Israeli police are in charge, people are not permitted to excavate without a permit. But in [Area C] people may take antiquities and sell them to Israelis,” said Yahya. “Everything on the Israeli antiquity market is coming from the West Bank. They are stealing antiquities and feeding them into the Israeli antiquities market. It’s [for] private and museum collections.”

Hizmi acknowledged the Israeli law is problematic.

“There is a dilemma here, it’s true,” said Hizmi. “On the one hand you can trade in antiquities but on the other hand excavations are limited to archaeologists and the state doesn’t sell antiquities, so all the finds that comes to the traders are illegal.”

Palestinians are demanding the return of all the archaeological finds that Israel excavated and took from beyond the 1967 lines, as well as Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum, which was established during the British Mandate and called the Palestine Museum.

Negotiations over archaeological issues took place as part of the Oslo Accords and are supposed to be part of the final status agreement. The Palestinians said the Israelis promised them a list of all the artifacts taken from the territories. The Israelis said the list is only of archaeological sites, which has been provided.

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