Israel Antiquities Authority shares map for non-existent national park in Area C

Last week the Director General of the Israel Antiquities Authority Eli Eskosido publicized the  map below on his telegram channel with the title “Welcome to the Hasmonean Palaces National Park” featuring the logos of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Nature and Parks Authority and the Binyamin Regional Council.

Although such a national park is being planned, it does not yet exist. Conversely, the Palestinians and the City of Jericho (who do exist) have no representation on the map. Finally, the Israel Antiquities Authority does not have any jurisdiction in the West Bank (excluding East Jerusalem) yet its logo appears on a venture in Area C. The Civil Administration’s Staff Officer for Archaeology, however, does have jurisdiction over Area C but its logo does not appear on the map.

The publication of the map by Mr. Eskosido is another manifestation of steps towards de facto annexation in the realm of antiquities which we wrote about earlier this year following the Knesset’s committee’s recommendation of expanding the Israel Antiquities Authority remit into Area C.

Map of the Hasmonean Palaces “National Park” from DG of IAA Telegram channel.

The Hasmonean Palaces (and Herod’s Winter Palace) is a 120 dunam site southwest of present day Jericho.  The site was excavated for the first time in the 19th century in pursuit of biblical Jericho. In the 1950s it was excavated once again by American archaeologists who found remains of a royal garden from the Roman period (also called “Herodian” or “Second Temple Period”) called the “the sunken garden”. In the 1970s and 1980s an excavation was conducted by the Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer. The structures at the site are dated to the second-first centuries BCE (Hasmonean/Hellenistic period) and consist of frescoes, courtyards, magnificent halls, pools, fountains and water cisterns which  attest to advanced technological capabilities and resonate with Jericho’s overall archaeological landscape.

The Oslo Accords divided responsibility for the archaeological sites between the Palestinian Authority (Areas A and B) and the Staff Officer for Archaeology at the Civil Administration (Area C). According to Clause 9 in Annex 3, twelve sites of “archaeological and historic importance to the Israeli side”  were noted on a map including the Hasmonean Palaces. The site is in fact an Israeli enclave (i.e. in Area C)  in the center of a Palestinian population.

According to a settler organization “Guardians of Eternity” the site is subject to consistent vandalism which they attribute to Palestinian intention to cause damage to any evidence of Jewish history and identity. According to Guardians of Eternity, the northern (Israeli) area  is safeguarded while the southern Palestinian side is on the verge of being completely destroyed. Over the years, the Staff Officer for Archaeology took multiple actions to minimize the damage such as confiscating tools and demolishing what it deemed illegal construction.

In 2018 conservation work by the Israel Antiquities Authority on the site ended. It was funded by the Ministry for Jerusalem and Heritage to a sum of 10 million NIS, in the framework of an initiative led by Minister for Jerusalem and Heritage Ze’ev Elkin. In a tour which took place in 2019 for the IAA’s conservation team it was said that the Binyamin Regional Council is interested in receiving the rights to manage the site. In recent years, there have been many public tours to the area. This past May, members of the Knesset’s Education Committee visited the site.

Emek Shaveh’s response: The plan to turn the site into a tourist attraction is part of the tourism development thrust advanced by settler bodies and the government  entailing massive investment in archaeological sites in an effort to normalize Area C as a legitimate tourism destination for the Israeli public.

The investment in this site is an outcome of a persistent campaign by Guardians of Eternity (Regavim) and the Shiloh Forum which exploits historical, religious and cultural affinities of the Jewish people to sites in the West Bank with the aim of galvanizing the Israeli government to expand and deepen its control. This latest involvement by the IAA in the Hasmonean Palaces should be considered within this context. Although damage by Palestinians to the site is a problem, for the most part this takes the form of light construction. It is certainly not an expression of a Palestinian Authority led plan to destroy Jewish heritage in the West Bank as the settlers repeatedly claim.