The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) threatens libel suit against Emek Shaveh, carrying punishment of imprisonment for its members of staff, following Facebook post

In a Facebook post, Emek Shaveh claimed that the IAA had committed to releasing the Tel Motza site for development, regardless of the findings of the archaeological dig. Emek Shaveh: we stand behind our statements; financial interests are driving the  IAA to fail in  its role to protect antiquities, and it is now also trying to silence public debate through threats.

About a month and a half ago, the IAA revealed the giant excavation at Tel Motza, which houses a 9,000-year-old settlement, the largest prehistoric settlement unearthed in the Middle East. According to the IAA, the excavation is changing our understanding of the Neolithic period. About one week later, sections of the site were already being covered up. Emek Shaveh, like many others within the archaeological community, views with concern the IAA’s decision to carry out an excavation at such a large site while permitting construction on much of the excavated area, thus causing its destruction.

A post shared by Emek Shaveh on Facebook (in Hebrew), claims that as part of the IAA’s agreement with the state, it undertook to release the site on a specified date. This means that regardless of the rescue excavation’s findings, the IAA preemptively agreed to cover up the site and the findings for the purpose of paving Route 16. A letter sent from the IAA to Emek Shaveh this week, states that: “The IAA and its employees intend to file a criminal complaint, which in accordance with the Israeli Defamation Law, the defamatory publications carried out by Emek Shaveh may be considered a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment.” At the end of the letter, the IAA proposed a settlement agreement for which it demanded confidentiality in the event of its acceptance. According to the arrangement, Emek Shaveh would make it clear that “its claims are incorrect.”

A letter sent by Emek Shaveh to the IAA in reply, posits: “On the merits of the matter, the post on which the threats are predicated is based on statements made by a senior official in the IAA, along with additional evidence. Under such circumstances, we believe that insofar as the IAA chooses to go to court on the matter, it will only cause itself embarrassment and incur heavy costs.”

Emek Shaveh’s reply: Rather than protect our country’s antiquities, the IAA is busy silencing others. Professional criticism expressed by Emek Shaveh and many others in the archaeological community must be heard. This is an extreme case wherein an Israeli statutory authority  whose role it is to promote academic research and public discourse, and is obligated to remain transparent, is instead threatening to sue, silence, and imprison others, in order to prevent discussion and criticism. As if that is not enough, it seeks to leave matters in the dark and resort to secret agreements. 

Background and additional cases:

The IAA is the statutory body responsible for antiquities in Israel. Its role is to preserve antiquities from destruction, carry out rescue excavations according to developmental needs, oversee construction work on antiquity sites, and release territories for construction. Professional discretion is placed entirely in its hands. The need to protect antiquities from destruction, while also carrying out excavations for a fee paid by the developer places the IAA in a conflict of interest.

This is not the first case in which Emek Shaveh has criticized the IAA for approving construction prior to excavation. As part of this struggle, Emek Shaveh petitioned against approval for construction of the three-story “Beit HaLiba” building in the Western Wall plaza, which was granted even before excavations commenced on site. Beyond that, for years Emek Shaveh has criticized the excavation of tunnels in Silwan and the Old City. Emek Shaveh claims that excavation of the tunnels and building permits (for the Kedem compound, Beit HaLiba, etc.) provided the initial evidence that the IAA was failing in its role by prioritizing development plans and political interests. As part of a Freedom of Information request submitted by Emek Shaveh, widespread criticism of the excavation on behalf of IAA senior officials was exposed, which they called “awful archaeology.”

There has  been a change in the policy of the IAA which previously avoided excavating multi-layered archaeological mounds, such as the site in Motza. Additional examples of mega-excavations are Tel Beit Shemesh and Tel Assawir (near the town of Harish). In both cases, the IAA conducted huge digs in record time to expedite the construction of roads that would irreversibly damage sites that it had avoided excavating for decades to protect them. Similar criticism was sounded regarding the IAA’s decision to release Tel Nebi Zechariah for construction near Modi’in. One possible explanation for the policy change is the IAA’s dependence on revenue generated by rescue excavations which comprises about 70% of its budget.

The authority to make decisions regarding excavation and construction on an antiquity site lies exclusively in the hands of the director of the IAA who is a political rather than a professional appointment. At present, his decisions cannot be appealed. Emek Shaveh is nearly the only critical voice against the IAA’s decisions and practices regarding the preservation of antiquities in the country.