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Feature

Published:13 November, 2000
Palestinians spar with Jews over archaeological claims to Holy Land

JERUSALEM, 9 November 2000 (Newsroom)

Amid gunfire and rock throwing, Palestinian archaeologists are engaged in an academic battle with their Israeli counterparts over the history of the Holy Land.

Palestinian politicians are urging their scholars to find proof that antiquity supports their claims to the region and its holy sites. Israeli negotiators at the most recent Camp David peace talks say that the archeological issue was the hottest topic, with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat attempting to delegitimize Israeli claims and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak using historical counter arguments.

Dispute over what touched off the recent clashes is itself rooted in historical concerns. Palestinians call current violence an "Al-Aqsa intifada" after the mosque located on what Jews refer to as the Temple Mount, a sacred Jewish site under Israeli sovereignty since 1967 where archaeological digs continue.

The Palestinian Authority insists the violence was sparked by conservative Israeli leader Ariel Sharon's visit to the Mount, which is revered in the Muslim world as the Noble Sanctuary. Israeli leaders argue, however, that Islamic leaders from Umm al-Fahm, one of the largest Arab communities in Israel, were holding rallies for an "Al-Aqsa intifada" long before Sharon's visit.

The slogan "Al-Aqsa is in danger" has been the rallying cry of the Islamic movement in Israel for years, the Israelis point out. The movement has invested labor and millions of dollars donated by the Arab Gulf states into restoring Al-Aqsa and publicizing allegations that Israel plans to annex the mosque. For years Arab towns around Galilee were pasted with posters depicting the chained golden dome surrounded by a halo of fire with a clenched fist rising out of the flames.

Analysts agree that Sharon’s visit, accompanied by a large contingency of Israeli police, provoked a particularly raw religious and political nerve among Arabs, but Israel insists that was not the intention. Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami asked in a recent meeting with prominent Israeli Arabs: "Does anybody think that there is a sane person in this country, this government, who wants to harm the sacredness of Islam, who wants to harm Al-Aqsa? We have had sovereignty over the Temple Mount for 30 years, and we have never changed the status quo. Under our sovereignty, the biggest mosque in the Middle East has been constructed."

But the more militant northern wing of the Islamic movement headed by Umm al-Fahm Mayor Sheikh Ra’ed Salah charges that Israel is trying to destroy Al-Aqsa. Recently, Sheikh Salah stated that "the constant excavations carried out by Israeli archeologists under the mosque are affecting its foundations" and that "so far, the archeologists have found nothing (at the site) that belongs to the Jewish people."

The relationship between Israeli and Palestinian archeologists always has been tense. Most Palestinian scholars reject the Jewish belief that archaeological evidence accords Jews the strongest claim to the Holy Land. Some Palestinians claim their presence in the region predates the Jews by more than a millennium. Modern-day Palestinians, according to that school of belief, are not the descendants of people who drifted from the Arabian peninsula in recent centuries, as most historians believe, but are the direct descendants of the Philistines, Aegean Sea people who settled on the coast of Canaan in the 12th century B.C.

Palestinian archeologist Dr. Adel Yahya argues that "Palestinians are the descendants of the ancient Canaanites themselves, who were present in the land before the Israelites arrived."

Though there is no physical evidence to back these assertions, they have been popular among Palestinian academics for at least a decade. Mainstream international archeologists flatly reject that belief. Palestinian Islamists also shy away from the theory, which would make them descendants of pagans.

Another group of Palestinian historians asserts that their people are the part of the Jewish nation that did not leave after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70 and subsequently converted to Islam.

Recent DNA research carried out at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and University College in London has shown that many Jews and Arabs are indeed closely related. More than seven out of 10 Jewish men and half of Arab men whose DNA was studied inherited their Y chromosomes from the same paternal ancestors who lived in the Middle East in the Neolithic period in prehistoric times. A previous study of 1,371 men from around the world by the University of Arizona found that the Y chromosome in Middle Eastern Arabs was almost indistinguishable from that of the Jews.

"Our findings are in good agreement with historical evidence and suggest genetic continuity in both populations despite their long separation and the wide geographic dispersal of Jews," wrote Hebrew University geneticists.

Most Palestinian scholars, however, choose to create a distinctive Palestinian-Muslim narrative that denies Jewish historical claim for the Holy Land. Edward Said, a leading Palestinian intellectual, argues that "biblical scholars had effectively conspired with the Zionists to write the Palestinians out of Middle Eastern history. Now, the Palestinians are hitting back — attempting to loosen the Jews' historical grip on the disputed land."

Hamed Salem, a lecturer in archeology at Bir Zeit University in Ramallah, recently declared: "Even the term Judaism is not very old. There is no record of Judaism before Jesus."

A recent Israeli-Palestinian archeological conference in Beit-Jala became turbulent when Israeli archeologist Ronny Reich presented evidence purporting to show that the ancient and modern Hebrews are one people. Reich said that the ancient Jewish ritual baths he had excavated in Jerusalem's Old City are identical to those established in the Talmud and still in use two millennia later by the Jews.

In a fiery response, Dr. Moain Sadek, the Palestinian Authority's director of antiquities, asserted that these were merely "ancient bathhouses" with no particular Jewish significance. Sadek later rejected the term "biblical archeology," claiming that Christian and Jewish scholars base their conclusions on distortions. He castigated his Israeli counterparts for employing what he called "religious terminology," such as "Second Temple period" to describe the late Iron Age of 1000 B.C. to A.D. 324.

Palestinian scholars try to strengthen their position by citing controversial theories of the "new Jewish archeologists" who probe the legitimacy of earlier unquestioned evidence that appear to confirm the biblical stories. The most prominent in that school is Tel Aviv University professor Israel Finkelstein, who argues that there is no archeological evidence to support stories of the book of Exodus, which includes the wanderings of the Jews in Sinai and Joshua's conquest of Canaan. "The ancient Israelites evolved from the local late Bronze Age Canaanite civilization," Finkelstein claims. "There was no brutal military invasion. And if the united kingdom of David and Solomon ever existed, they were small tribal affairs. As for Solomon's Temple, there is no hard archeological evidence for it."

Mainstream Israeli archeologists repeatedly charge that their Palestinian counterparts are conducting reckless excavations on the Temple Mount in the process of expanding and renovating the Al-Aqsa mosque and are deliberately destroying precious archeological evidence of the Jewish temples. Israeli archeologists are prevented from supervising these digs by Waqf, an Islamic trust controlling the Muslim holy sites.

The Palestinian Authority's (PA) Planning Ministry Web site, in its sections on history and on Jerusalem, makes no mention of Jews, Judaism, the Bible, or the Temple. The site details only the significance of Jerusalem for Muslims and Christians. The PA Tourism Ministry's Web site also does not mention Jews or Judaism.

The Israeli Tourism Ministry Web site, however, highlights the city's significance to "Jews, Christians, and Muslims" and identifies Al-Aqsa Mosque as Islam's third holiest shrine. "Most archeologists do not accept the revisionist view," says Hebrew University archeologist Amihai Mazar. "We have been able to prove the veracity of much in the Bible, particularly the later books."

Jon Seligman, Jerusalem district archeologist, says the Palestinian effort to question the existence of the Second Temple "is tantamount to Holocaust denial. There is a huge body of evidence. The Arch of Titus, erected in Rome to commemorate the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70, is powerful contemporary proof."

Knesset member Rabbi Benny Elon, from the national religious camp, asserted that the Palestinians cannot acknowledge any Jewish roots in the Holy Land "because Islam arrived only in the 7th century with a different version of the biblical narrative. The sacrifice of Isaac, for example, had become the sacrifice if Ishmael. Any archeological evidence to support the Bible is therefore dangerous and has to be suppressed."

Mossi Raz, a former leader of Peace Now, put it differently: "I am not happy when I hear the Palestinians say there was no Temple here or no Jewish history here. It's obviously political demagoguery. But the discussions about what happened here 2,500 years ago have no bearing on the current political talks. The Western Wall is important, not because it stood near the Temple but because it has become a symbol."

The Palestinian Authority's Sadek clarified that he is not suggesting that the area has no Jewish heritage. "I just say that all the inhabitants of this ancient land were Palestinians: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and pagans," he said. "The Bible was misused for political purposes for the last 100 years. Excavations were carried out with an Old Testament orientation, and that's been very damaging to the Palestinians. I am not against the Bible. The ancient cities of Megiddo and Hatzor, for example, are mentioned in the Bible. But they were inhabited by Philistines and Canaanites well before the Israelite period. Interpretations must be reworked." Source: Newsroom

 

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