[Ancientartifacts] No Peace

There is no archaeological peace


The unsuccessful attempt to breathe life into the deflated balloon of the
peace process has given rise to reports on a plethora of initiatives for the
resolution of the different issues comprising the morass of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Teams of Israeli and Palestinian
professionals, funded by international foundations specializing in the peace
industry, hold meetings, usually abroad, and work on drafts of agreements
that profess to resolve problems in such sensitive matters as Palestinian
and Israeli educational curricula, determination of sovereignty, the setting
of borders, economic arrangements, and the like.

Those behind the drafts acknowledge that the chances of their influencing
the decision makers is not great, but they argue that the significance of
the meetings lies in the very fact they are being held, and that they offer
hope that a solution is possible, and only a matter of intellectual effort
and goodwill.

One of these initiatives is a draft called the "Israeli-Palestinian Cultural
Heritage Agreement," authored by Israeli, Palestinian and foreign
archaeologists, which, in 39 detailed sections, sought to "sketch the image
of an archaeological peace" (as reported by Meron Rapoport, "A Separate
Peace," Haaretz English Edition, April 11, 2008).

The document was subject to a number of excited responses in the foreign
press, and is scheduled to be presented at an international conference in
Dublin in late June. It was also scathingly criticized by archaeologist Neal
Asher Silberman ("Partitioning the Past," Haaretz English Edition, April 18,
2008), who wrote that the agreement "concentrates on the physical control of
sites and the repatriation of relics, without seriously confronting the core
issues: bridging the enormous differences in attitudes toward archaeology
between Israelis and Palestinians, and addressing the utter lack of a sense
of shared archaeological heritage."

Indeed, the agreement has sections that deal with the return of
archaeological artifacts that were removed from the occupied territories
since 1967, preservation of archaeological sites, cooperation on
excavations, as well as special arrangements for Jerusalem. But the interest
raised by the draft is connected less to its details than to its fundamental
approach, which regards Israel's archaeological activities in the West Bank
as a theft of cultural objects rightfully belonging to the Palestinians, as
if Israelis were colonialist grave robbers a la 19th century, who stripped
the precious historical legacy of the Ancient Near East and transferred them
to museums in Europe. Now, goes the logic, as the land Israel is divided
into two states and the era of colonialism is brought to an end, what was
stolen will be restored to its rightful owners.

This approach transforms national cultural heritage into a matter of
collections, which exist to be exhibited in museums before tourists, or to
be part of the antiquities trade. Even though the Cultural Heritage
Agreement declares that "Israel and Palestine constitute one archaeological
domain that is divided by political borders," the concept that drawing
geopolitical borders can determine the ownership of an ancient artifact - or
an archaeological site - by one nation or another, is not only simplistic
and legalistic, but should be unacceptable to anyone for whom national or
cultural heritage is not dictated by "peace makers" specializing in conflict
resolution and creators of a virtual world.


Ignoring this aspect of the conflict does not bode well for an "accord on
the past." Cultural heritage, archaeology and historiography are fully
conscripted as part of the Israel-Palestinian struggle. In spite of the
appreciation we may have for the good intentions of the archaeologists, they
would be better off dealing with their excavations, and avoid drafting naive
and simplistic documents that only reflect the extent to which the partition
into two sovereign states is leading toward absurd solutions.

Dave Welsh
Unidroit-L Listowner


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