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New excavation site in West Bank village has Palestinians on edge

By Sean O’Neill

In a country guided by ethno-nationalism, an excavation site is rarely ever just about archaeology.

The village of At-Tuwani, in the West Bank’s south Hebron hills, rises above Israeli route 60 as you come down from the city of Yatta with unmistakable roundness.   It’s smooth shape is a telltale sign of centuries, if not millennia, of human habitation.  The village wraps around Tel Tuwani, a hill that has slowly grown as one layer of life has replaced the next.  Some are readily visible.  Old cave homes now serve as animal stables, several feet below the current road level, with homes made of large stones above them.  The concrete homes of a new generation are being built yet another layer up.  Old Roman-era tombs and wine presses are often visible on this hill and the hills nearby where villagers graze their sheep and goats.

Now some of these layers are being stripped away, inspected, and studied.  A Byzantine era church, long known by the residents, begins to take shape.  Mosaic floors appear in the dirt where before sheep gathered to be watered.  The traditional taboun (clay oven), where the owner of this land makes bread, is suddenly surrounded by an excavation site.  For the archaeology buff, it’s fascinating.  But it has the Palestinian residents on edge, because the digging is being done by the Israeli Civil Administration (the Israeli military government arm in the Occupied Territories), and like anything else in the West Bank, ownership of land and the heritage buried beneath is rarely straightforward.

“They’re looking for ancient Israeli things,” says a woman on whose land the dig is taking place.  “People are worried that if they find something Jewish, what happened in Susiya could happen here.”

Susiya, the name of both a nearby Palestinian village and an adjacent Israeli settlement, is a good example of the politics that often accompany archaeology in Israel/Palestine.  The settlement was started in 1983, near the Palestinian village of the same name.  Three years later, the Palestinian village was demolished and its residents evicted to make way for an archaeological park because excavations had uncovered the ruins of a synagogue that dated from between the 4th and 7th centuries AD.  The villagers returned but their houses were demolished again.  Houses and caves belonging to the Palestinian residents have been demolished on five occasions.  They now live in tents, scattered around the Israeli settlement and archaeological park, each family on its own land and are subject to regular attacks and harassment by Israeli settlers as well as the threat of a further eviction.

The archaeologist overseeing the dig in At-Tuwani, who is anonymous, as he was not permitted to speak to the press, laughed at the suggestion that something similar might happen there.  “This is for the people here to enjoy,” he said.

“Liars,” was the response of another village resident, Mohammed.  “They have an old map from Turkish times and say they are looking for an ancient well.  It’s better if they don’t find it.”

The excavation began when the village tried to get permission from the Civil Administration to put in running water and to approve new construction of houses.  For years the village tried to bring in electricity, running water, and build new houses but had their efforts stymied by the Israeli military.  While the Israeli settlement of Ma’on and settlement outpost of Havot Ma’on, several hundred meters away have steadily grown, the village has been subject to multiple demolition orders, enforced on four occasions including the original village mosque, and stop-work orders.  After years of resistance and increased international pressure, At-Tuwani seemed close to getting approval for its electricity, water, and building projects.  However, the last required step was for the archaeologists to sign off, and before doing so they wanted to dig around a little.  Each morning a couple van-loads of Palestinian laborers arrive and begin the careful work of digging and dusting off the rocks beneath, all under the watchful eye of a government-employed Israeli archaeologist and an armed Israeli guard.

Yonaton Mizrachi, of Emek Shaveh, a nonprofit organization of archaeologists that, according to their website “is working to change the role of archaeology in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”, is cautiously optimistic that At-Tuwani will not be the next Susiya.  After inspecting the site, he said there are finds from the Byzantine and Abbasid periods.  “I didn’t see any Jewish finds,” he said,  “Not that it should matter, but I understand the fear they have.”  He added, “I’m very skeptical about anything the Civil Administration does in the West Bank, but if there’s a slight chance that they are doing good work, that’s good.”

One of At-Tuwani’s leaders shared Mizrachi’s optimism.  He believed the dig would be finished at its scheduled date, the 1st of July, in time to put in new water pipes.    He also added a word of caution though.  “But anyway, we never trust them, so we will wait until July 1.”

Update – 16:12:

Since the writing of this article, the taboun oven mentioned above has been destroyed.  The archaeologists decided they wanted to dig underneath it.  The frustrated landowner, who does not expect compensation, said, “We’ll build a new one, but we’ll wait until they’re finished and gone.”  In the meantime, they will have to go to their neighbors’ to bake bread.  The digging has also creeped behind the back of the women’s cooperative building and into a neighbor’s land, near a small structure used for storage.  It isn’t clear to village residents what the extent of the digging will be.  It seems discovering the details of the lives of At-Tuwani’s ancient inhabitants takes precedence over the daily lives of those living there today

Palestinian names have been changed due to the sensitivity of the topic.

Sean O’Neill worked for Christian Peacemaker Teams from 2006-2009 in the South Hebron Hills supporting Palestinian-led nonviolent resistance to Israeli occupation and continued settlement expansion.  He is currently an MA candidate at New York University in Near Eastern Studies and Journalism.  He is in Israel/Palestine this summer researching for his masters’ thesis.


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  • COMMENTS

    1. Ben Israel

      Sean claims:
      ———————————————–
      Susiya, the name of both a nearby Palestinian village and an adjacent Israeli settlement, is a good example of the politics that often accompany archaeology in Israel/Palestine. The settlement was started in 1983, near the Palestinian village of the same name. Three years later, the Palestinian village was demolished and its residents evicted to make way for an archaeological park because excavations had uncovered the ruins of a synagogue that dated from between the 4th and 7th centuries AD.
      ==============================================

      This is a very serious charge. I am sure the Civil Administration recongnizes private property rights in the West Bank. I can’t believe they would be able to throw people off their land simply because it was sitting on top of an archaeological site.
      I, for one, would like to see some documentation of this charge.

      Reply to Comment
    2. vickie

      It figures.
      Poor people want electricity and running water. So the Israelis, in all their benevolence, will take their land. It’ll teach those people to ask for…water in their homes? They should have been satisfied with the fact that the Israelis ‘let’ them live there, right?! First water and electricity…next thing you know, they’d want human rights!

      Reply to Comment
    3. Beaceful Balestinian

      Jewish archeology in Palestine is very dangerous. It tends to reveal artifacts that show the Jews are actually connected to this land. As the adherents of the One And Only True Narrative that any Jewish presence in Palestine is a relic of 19th-century colonialism, we just can’t have that.

      It’s inconvenient and must be stopped.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Merlot

      Ben Israel, since when has the Civil Administration in the West Bank (or the government of Israel for that matter) recognized private property rights in the West Bank. The settlements in Hebron were established when Israeli settlers took over a private Palestinian hotel and were allowed to stay by the civil administration. The settlement of Beit El was established when the Israeli military took over private Palestinian land for a military base and then turned the base over to settlers. The hundred or so odd settlement outposts are all established on private Palestinian land to which the Palestinian owners are denied access. Route 443 was established on private Palestinian land against the will of the land owners because it would, in the words of the Israeli government, “benefit the local population”. Of course the local population whose private property was taken to build this road now can’t use the road.

      In the past few years the communities of Yatta, Khirbet Tana, and Khirbet Ras al Ahmar have been depopulated or destroyed completely, their residents forced off their land. Al-Hadidiya and Al-Aqaba are at risk of complete demolition. In the Jordan Valley communities of Jiftlik, Fasayel, al-Auja, etc. large portions of the communities are threatened with demolition and residents with expulsion. The Jahalin Bedouin are steadily being pushed off of their land, and lets not forget Al-Arakib.

      Of course the idea of expelling people from their homes in order to build an archeological site is unthinkable. Just ask the residents of the Bustan area of Silwan.

      Yes, it is abundantly clear that Israel recognizes and respects private property rights in occupied Palestine.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Yonatan

      This archaeology sounds very suspicious. It sounds like they are deliberately undermining buildings on the surface, which may then collapse. I suspect the owner would then find it very difficult to get permission to replace them given the difficulties they have had in getting essential water supplies installed.

      One key part of professional archaeological work is that the results are published, preferably in professional peer-reviewed journals. Has this happened for similar completed excavations made in simlar circumstances?

      Archaeology has been used in the past to ‘prove’ ideological positions – for example, Hitler used archaeology as “a propaganda tool designed to both generate nationalistic pride in Germans and provide scientific excuses for conquest” (see Wikipedia).

      Reply to Comment
    6. Shawn Leonard

      I have been to At-Tuwani and have seen where the Israeli military have cut the electric wires running to the village. I have seen the demolition order on the cistern, their only water supply. I took pictures, I talked to the wonderful people of the village. A part of me is in At-Tuwani

      Reply to Comment
    7. Vickie

      To All:

      Israel does not recognize property rights of Palestinians or gentiles…how do we know that?
      Israelis didn’t recognize those rights in 1947. The State of Israel didn’t recognize those rights in 1948 or 1967…why should they now? Only brown people owned the land…and brown people aren’t really civilized enough to own land…it is such a sophisticated system, only an Israeli could understand it. And the definition of who or what an Israeli is will change according to necessity and whim.
      I wonder, under all that excavation, did Israelis discover…I don’t know…a whole civilization of people who were living there in modern times? Just wondering. Do you think those…Palestinians?…left anything behind…a midden pile…a sandal…a photo? I guess when you want to wipe a away one history, you search for another.

      Reply to Comment
    8. directrob

      Jewish/Zionist archeology is the criminal destruction of archeological sites and the criminal destruction of human lives and has nothing to do with science.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Gadi

      According to this video the whole point of the excavation is that the Germans are building a health-clinic in that spot, once the land is cleared for use.

      Kind of missed the point of the dig, didn’t you Sean?

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D5XhsE32FzI

      Reply to Comment

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