Israeli Policy makers demand increase military surveillance and archaeological oversight over Mt Ebal/Tel Burnat and Sebastia

Yesterday, October 1st, Minister for Environmental Protection Idit Silman arrived at the site of Sebastia with Head of the Samaria Regional Council Yossi Dagan and members of the public. Signs with the logos of the Parks Authority and the Civil Administration were placed on the road through the village. The entry points to the village were sealed off by the army during the visit and while the minister toured the site and took pictures, the villagers of Sebastia were prevented from accessing the site, including part of the site which is in area B. In a facebook post following the visit Silman wrote: “The amazing Land of Israel belongs to us and we will continue to settle it.”

Sebastia is an archaeological mound (tel) and an historic village which is currently on the Tentative List of World Heritage Sites for Palestine. In May this year the Israeli government allocated 32 million NIS for the development of Tel Sebastia taking Israel’s unilateral actions at heritage sites in the West Bank to a new level. For more information about the government’s plans for the site see here.

Mount Ebal/Tel Burnat
Last week, on Tuesday, September 25th, the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense “subcommittee for Judea and Samaria” (aka West Bank) met in an “urgent” session during the Knesset’s recess to discuss what the session’s initiators called “a worrying attempt by the Palestinian Authority to destroy Mount Ebal as part of the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to attack and undermine the existing situation and damage heritage sites and archaeology of the State of Israel” (note: Mt. Ebal/Tel Burnat is in area B of the West Bank, not within sovereign Israel).
The session was convened following false reports disseminated at the beginning of the month by the settlers who claimed that the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the council of the neighbouring town of a-Sira ash-Shamaliya had caused damage to the site during construction work at the end of August.

The reports and the special subcommittee session are part of an orchestrated attempt by the settlers and their representatives in the Israeli parliament to use antiquity sites as a ruse for advancing annexation. Representatives of the army’s Central Command, the Civil Administration (ICA) and the Staff Officer for Archaeology (SOA) emphasized during the session that the works did not damage the antiquities site of Mt.Ebal, and that there are limits to what they can do in sites located in area B.  Emek Shaveh’s ED Alon Arad reminded the session’s participants that the site is under the auspices of the PA and that they are within their right to develop the area as they see fit.

In a related development, The Samaria Regional Council announced the “first public march to mount Ebal to take place during the second day of Succoth (the Feast of the Tabernacles) today (Monday, October 2nd, at 11am).

Background on Mt Ebal/Tel Burnat
The site of Mount Ebal is an ancient enclosure built shortly before 1200 BCE on the northern slope of Mount Ebal (Tel Burnat) and was abandoned not long after. The site is situated north of Nablus at the top of a mountain peak between the village of a-Sira ash-Shamaliya and Balata refugee camp.

In the 1980s, the site was excavated by Israeli archaeologist Dr. Adam Zertal with the assistance of the Samaria Regional Council, and received publicity due to Zertal’s identification of the site as an altar from the early days of the Israelite (i.e the biblical tribes of Israel) settlement. Zertal himself identified the site with a ritual described in the book of Joshua, and as a result the site has been referred to as “Joshua’s altar”. This identification was rejected by most of his colleagues in the academic community. Even the attribution of the site to the ancient Israelite community has been questioned. As a result, and due to difficulties of access and the site’s proximity to the lands of the Palestinian village of a-Sira-ash-Shamalia, the site was mostly forgotten and only a few had visited it until recently.

Like hundreds of other archaeological sites in the West Bank, since the signing of the ‘Interim Agreement’ (‘Oslo Accords’), the site of Mount Ebal has been marked as area B, and therefore officially under the auspices of the Department of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage (DACH) in the PA, which considers it central to the local heritage of the Palestinian communities living in the vicinity of the site. Situated outside the jurisdiction of the ICA and the SOA, who is responsible for sites in area C of the West Bank, any archaeological activity on site requires explicit permission from the PA’s DACH, otherwise it is considered an illegal activity. In addition, the site was not included in the list of sites “of special importance to the Israeli side” listed in the Interim Agreements, which require bilateral consultation in order to excavate them.

All this has changed in recent years with the increasing use of heritage sites  as a means to take over territories in the West Bank. Under the guise of heritage protection, settler organizations such as “Guardians of Eternity” (a branch of the “Regavim” whose goal is to preserve Jewish control over the Land of Israel) have taken ownership over “national” heritage sites throughout the West Bank, while presenting them as sites in danger of destruction. Together with the settler regional councils they have campaigned and recruited the relevant authorities to allocate funds for surveillance of Palestinians living in or near antiquities areas, excavations, and touristic development. As we have seen in Susya, Tel Shiloh and Tel Rumeida, antiquities sites have become an effective tool to displace Palestinian residents from their lands, fields, springs, and sometimes even from their homes. The fact that Mount Ebal is in area B and under the auspices of the PA has not stopped the settlers from presenting the site as a “national [Jewish] heritage site”.

Tensions specifically over Mount Ebal first made headlines in 2019 when the PA’s Committee for Historic Sites had begun to study the site with the intention of declaring it a Palestinian national heritage site. In response, the head of the Samaria  Regional Council, Yossi Dagan, organized an emergency conference in an attempt to prevent the measure and called on the government of Israel to treat the site as a site in Area C. These efforts resulted in the PA’s abandonment of the plan to develop the site as an antiquities park. More recently, the council of Asira ash-Shamaliya have approved developed plans to build a neighborhood near

the site. As far as we are aware, the plan does not infringe on the actual archaeological area which will remain preserved, but will be less accessible to settler visits.

While most archaeologists in the world avoid working in OpT, settlers, and some Israeli archaeologists who work closely with them, found loyal partners in the Christian-nationalist wing of the Evangelical community. Sharing a messianic-apocalyptic agenda, both movements engage in archaeological excavations aimed at  confirming their literal interpretation of biblical stories under a highly questionable scientific-archaeological cover. As we noted in previous updates, this type of cooperation has been taking place  at Mt. Ebal/Tel Burnat despite the fact that it is situated in area B. In fact, in March 2022, the director of excavations for Associates for Biblical Research, a Texan Christian ministry dedicated to “demonstrating the historical reliability of the bible” by the name of Scott Stripling  gave a  press conference where he presented what he claimed to be a “curse tablet” with proto-Hebrew writing. Stripling  said he and a team, which includes Israeli researchers, found the tablet through the “wet sifting” of debris left over at the Mt. Ebal site from the excavation undertaken in the 1980s. The soil which allegedly contained the find has been taken from the site without a license from the PA in contravention of local and international law and in complete disregard for acceptable archaeological standards and ethics. As mentioned by Dr. Gad Barnea, a historian from Haifa University who attended the Knesset Committee session last week, the entire academic community apart from those involved in the project dismiss the conclusion that the tablet features any writing whatsoever. In June this year settlers once again took soil from the site to the nearby settlement of Shavei Shomron where they initiated a sifting project for the public.

The Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Subcommittee on “Judea and Samaria” session on Mount Ebal:

Last week’s session was convened at the behest of the head of the subcommittee on Judea and Samaria MK Moshe Solomon, of Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party. In his opening speech he remarked that “a people who fail to protect the heritage of their homeland lose their right to exist here…Attempts to harm this site like the measure to declare Jericho as a Palestinian heritage site are a serious source of concern,” he said referring to the inscription of Tel Jericho/Tel es Sultan as a World Heritage Site in Palestine.

Knesset members present at the session included Zvi Succot, from Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power Party, Tali Gottleib from the Likud, Simcha Rotman from the Religious Zionism party, and Ze’ev Elkin from the National Unity Party. Present were representatives for the army’s Central Command, the Staff Officer for Archaeology, Benny Har-Even, Chairman of the settler’ archaeological watchdog “Guardians of Eternity” Moshe Gutman, Historian Dr. Gad Barnea from Haifa University and Emek Shaveh’s ED Alon Arad.

Much of the debate involved challenging the representatives of the military and the Civil Administration for what the politicians complained was lack of enforcement and lack of protection of the site in light of what they said was intentional destruction by the Palestinians in an attempt to erase evidence of Jewish roots in the land.

The representative for the Civil Administration’s Head of Infrastructure, Lieutenant Colonel Adam Avidan, explained the complex geopolitical reality of working in area B but said they are doing what it takes to protect the site from destruction. The measures mentioned include an observation post situated nearby to allow for greater surveillance of the site. The SOA mentioned the reliance of his unit on civil bodies and individuals (many of whom lack any official archaeological training) in monitoring the site. The army also mentioned it enables frequent group visits to the site. Both Har-even and Avidan reiterated that the antiquities were not damaged in recent works. Avidan said that the head of a-Sira ash-Shamaliya council was summoned for “questioning” and was given a map with an “inner” polygon (marking the borders of the site) and warned not to conduct any works that would damage antiquities within the boundaries of the polygon. He also mentioned that the ICA presented the head of the council their “red lines” regarding the site.

MK Simcha Rothman (Religious Zionism) said that the fact that the site is in area B is not relevant because “in my opinion the commitment of the ICA is to protect archaeological assets.” The obligation to protect these assets under law is higher than anything else including the Oslo Accords, he said.

Zvi Sukkot (Religious Zionism) talked among other things about structures built illegally in a-Sira ash-Shamaliya in area C for which he said no enforcement measures have been taken.

In his remarks, Director of Emek Shaveh Alon Arad said:

“I think that what we have here is an extreme case of gaslighting. The identity of the site is derived from its geographical location. It is in area B, which means that the Civil Administration has no statutory authority over the site. In addition there is no official polygon which is declared for the site which means that it has no authority over it. In Israel, the Israeli Antiquities Authority is responsible for declared antiquity sites. This is not the case here. I agree that it is an important antiquities site but we cannot confuse cultural affiliation with sovereignty. If we did we could determine sovereignty based on any point in history. For example, if we took the boundaries set by Julius Caesar, all of Europe should be Italy.  The fact that this is in area B means the Palestinians have the right to build there. Just as the Israelis have the right to build over Tel Motza or Tel Beit Shemesh. The Palestinian development plan has undergone the necessary process within the PA. One can like it or not. If you are looking at this as a ruse to take political action or make changes on the ground this is another story.”

Arad also challenged the SOA’s complicity in archaeological actions taken recently at the site: ” Doesn’t the removal of soil from an archaeological site necessitate an excavation license? Who gave you the excavation license? I think that this committee should also be focusing on people who have damaged the site who may not be Palestinians, who acted in violation of local laws of the land and international law.”

Chairman Moshe Solomon concluded the session with asking for further details of measures taken by the SOA and the central command to protect the site. He also asked for further information about illegal structures in the town of a-Sira ash-Shamaliya and asked to look into demolition orders as a means to protect the site and as a way of creating deterrence.

Emek Shaveh’s response:
The meeting of the Evangelicals, the settlers and Israeli authorities at Mt. Ebal/Tel Burnat demonstrates how archaeology has become a tool for Messianic elements to take over land in the name of heritage. This is another example of how the settlers and their representatives in the Knesset are using antiquity sites to reneg on the Olso Accords, to weaken the PA and advance their ultimate goal of annexation.

There is no doubt that the destruction of antiquities and antiquity theft is a serious problem plaguing the whole of the Middle East including Israel and the areas under the auspices of the Civil Administration and the Palestinian Authority. However, this destruction cannot function as an excuse for creating political facts on the ground.

Attempts to change the political reality in the name of safeguarding heritage which entail violations of human and cultural rights cannot be ignored by the archaeological community in Israel and abroad. Professionals working in the area of heritage cannot remain silent in the face of attempts by ultra-nationalists and messianic groups to weaponize their discipline.