Amid Row over Arab-Israeli Future, A Quiet Tussle: Who Owns the Past?

Article excerpt

Archaeologist Ehud Netzer has unearthed the plush, recreational hub of King Herod's summer palace. His latest excavation of the 2,000-year-old compound uncovered swimming pools, saunas, and baths embellished with mosaics and frescoes.

Dr. Netzer is still looking for the tomb of the "King of Judea." Roman historical sources say that Herod is buried here at the enormous retreat that he built for himself. But Netzer, a Herodian expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has been working on this site on and off since 1972, may never fulfill his dream of finding the king's burial place.

Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists, scholars, and curators are waging a quiet battle for ownership of ancient sites and artifacts that make the soil here as rich with history as other Middle Eastern countries are with oil.

With 18,000 known points of interest, Israel and the Occupied Territories have a higher concentration of archaeological sites than anywhere else in the world. Herod constructed more than a few.

Though Christian and Jewish Scriptures depict Herod - who ruled from 37 BC until around the time of Jesus' birth - as a ruthless despot, archaeologists credit the "Great Builder" with dotting the Holy Land and other reaches of the Roman Empire with structures.

Some lie in modern-day political hot spots. Herodium, southeast of Bethlehem in the West Bank, is surrounded by Palestinian and Bedouin Arab villages. Though this is "Area C," according to the Oslo peace accords, and will temporarily remain under Israeli control, its ownership is up for negotiation. Palestinians expect to gain it in a peace settlement.

"This area is open to different wishes and different ideas," Netzer says as he looks west to the hills of Jerusalem and Bethlehem on the horizon. "I think archaeology is above everything," things like politics and borders, he adds.

Battle for digging rights

But in a place where two peoples are still trying to work out a way to share one land, it's difficult to keep politics out of academics. Though this is a discipline where rocks are dug and not thrown, the two sides' positions seem ages apart, and won't be resolved until the political leaders restart the peace process and commence "final status" talks. In recent days, the United States has increased pressure on the sides to reach a final settlement soon.

Palestinians have traditionally said that they view all Israeli digging in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, territories occupied by Israel after the 1967 Six-Day War, as illegal. Arabs accuse Israelis of treasure-hunting and using archaeology to confiscate land and make nationalistic claims.

But relations between the two sides have evolved somewhat. A section on archaeology in the Oslo accords tried to pave the way for issues to be negotiated amicably.

Yousef Abu Taa, deputy head of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, says the accords do allow Israeli digs in Area C at places such as Herodium. However, according to the Palestinian Authority (PA) interpretation of the accords, any artifacts the Israelis uncover must be documented and eventually transferred to the Palestinians. "Everything must be returned when the occupation is over," Mr. Taa says in a conversation at the PA's new archaeology headquarters in Ramallah. …