Update: New Master Plan for Tel Shiloh

A master plan for an 11,000 sq. meter tourism center in the Tel Shiloh archaeological site was submitted in March 2014 to the Planning & Building Committee of the Civil Administration in the West Bank. The construction began even before the plan’s approval. Following Emek Shaveh’s objection to the legal adviser of the Civil Administration the construction has stopped, but not before we warned of our intention to appeal to the High Court of Justice should the work continue. The pace of the work and the scope of the plan attest to an unprecedented change in the character of the archaeological site and in the Israeli policy towards settlements in the area.

At the end of March 2014 the Civil Administration published a new master plan for Tel Shiloh, located beside Shiloh settlement and between the Palestinian villages of Turmus-Ayya and Kariyut, about 20 km north of Ramallah. The proposed plan (No. 205/15/Yesha) is an initiative of the Binyamin Regional Council and is focused on tourism development for the site and its surroundings. The development includes the top of the archaeological tel, its slopes and the area around it, a perimeter of over 300 dunam. The plan proposes to build 11,000 sq. meters, including an amphitheatre (up to 960 sq. m), an events hall (up to 1,000 sq. m), commercial and tourism centers (about 3,000 sq. m), a motel (up to 4,800 sq. m), and parking lots for 5,000 visitors. While we do not have information about the amount invested, there is no doubt that it involves many millions of shekels.

A plan of this magnitude is almost unheard of in Israeli archaeological sites, let alone in the West Bank. In most instances construction in archaeological parks is in the order of several hundred meters for the building of a souvenir shop, a kiosk and an office. In Tel Shiloh some of the proposed buildings lack precedence in archaeological parks. For instance, there are no cases where the authorities build hotels, an amphitheater, such large commercial areas, a petting zoo (300 sq. m), a factory and more.

Political Significance

Already today, the archaeological site is located within the settlement. Palestinians are denied entry, despite the fact that some of the lands belong to the Palestinian village of Kariyut. From the perspective of the settlers and the Israeli authorities, turning Tel Shiloh into a tourist center is intended to emphasize Israel’s historical link to the area, to create an attraction for visitors and a source of income for settlers. Even if the settlers are a minority in the area, the movement of visitors and the feeling of historical belonging to the site will provide a significant means for strengthening the settlements in the area.

The site’s remains and its manner of representation

Upon examining the archaeological remains, it is possible to see that it is multilayered. The site, which proceeds from the first settlement, dated to the Middle Bronze Age II B (18th-16th centuries BCE) to the latest period of settlement until the 20th century—was part of the Palestinian village Kariyut. Many of the remains in the site are from the Byzantine and early Muslim periods, which left the most significant mark on the site. But the central narrative told to the visitor (via local guides, signs, a film and the development of archaeological attractions) emphasizes the site’s identification with biblical Shiloh and as the Tabernacle of the Israelites, despite the fact that it is impossible to know if and where they resided. In tandem with highlighting the biblical/Judaic aspects, the tour cancels the historical connection of the Palestinian residents to the site, and ignores the finds’ significance as part of their past and their heritage.

Damage to the Antiquities

Beyond the political significance of the building in Tel Shiloh, the proposed plan includes construction in the heart of the site itself—an action that is not done in archaeological sites in Israel, and which goes against the basic principles of professionals: one does not build in a multilayered site.[1] The wide area intended for construction, its proximity to the heart of the site, and the massive building upon the site—all these factors comprise irreversible damage to the archaeological site. Despite the fact that the plan in Tel Shiloh is extreme in its scope, the archaeological personnel of the Civil Administration do not oppose it.

Construction begun prior to the Plan’s Approval

Throughout the month of April, the laying of infrastructure for the new plan began on the site, despite the fact that no discussion has begun and the plan has not yet been approved. Emek Shaveh demanded from the Civil Administration to half the work until it receives legal permit for the plan. The response was that the work is being done legally according to a plan that was approved in 1992. Following this correspondence, which included a warning to appeal to the High Court of Justice, the Civil Administration replied stating that the Binyamin Regional Council has decided to stop the works and to return the site to its previous condition.

To our understanding, the work was stopped because it was done illegally, and the Civil Administration and the regional council promised to return the site to its prior condition because of our warning to appeal to the High Court of Justice. This conduct, of ignoring the law until the threat of a lawsuit, is worrisome in any sound administration, and raises the question whether the ‘Tel Shiloh’ site is in the right hands.

Summary and Future Activities

These days Emek Shaveh together with the residents of Kariyut, submitted an objection with the aim of stopping the proposed plan. The main claims are based on the damage to the site, on the obligation of the Civil Administration to enable the area’s residents access to the main heritage site in their area, and on the fact that the area contains mosques, which the plan will irreversibly prevent use thereof (Today people no longer pray in the mosques, but this is a matter of principle).

The plan in Tel Shiloh is political and its aim is to strengthen the settlements. Public and political pressure comprises a central factor in the struggle against the planning process.

To read Emek Shaveh’s report on Tel Shiloh (Khirbet Seilun) click here.

[1] Thus for instance in the late 1990s the archaeological community opposed a building plan in Tel Rumeidah in Hebron, because it is an archaeological site. Archaeologists of varying political opinions expressed their opposition to the construction

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