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Parks and Occupation: Archaeology is the new security

The Biblical blueprint is being dragged up around our feet, seeking to use what is under the ground as evidence of divine right and the political and territorial sovereignty it supposedly affords us.

An Israeli police van outside the City of David archeological park in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. (File photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

An Israeli police van outside the City of David archeological park in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. (File photo: Yotam Ronen/Activestills.org)

The past makes for prime real estate when you’re developing a national mythology. It’s also a fine way to exert control over an area, both under — and overground. Just ask the residents of Silwan, East Jerusalem, whose homes have variously been placed under demolition orders, dug under, or had access restricted in the name of archaeological exploration.

The use of archaeology as a political tool is in Israel is not new, despite its recent sharp descent into an explicit weapon of occupation. In the 1950s and ’60s, as immigrants arrived in Israel from across the globe, the exploration of the physical connection of Jews to the land contributed to a unifying mythology that sought to provide each new arrival with a profound sense of belonging, no matter their country of origin.

This is also not a tactic unique to Israel: nation-building around the world has often resorted to archaeology as a means of emphasizing the legitimacy of that people’s presence in that place, no matter how new or thrown-together they appear to be. Just as in the wake of the unification of Italy the politician Massimo D’Azeglio stated, “We have made Italy; now we must make Italians.” So too was the creation of Israelis a crucial pursuit in the early decades of the state.

Yet this is not, of course, the full story. As anthropologist Nadia El-Haj has stated, the romantic ‘coming home’ message behind digging for Jewish roots in Israel serves to utterly “sideline a constitutive piece of the Zionist project: that is, it effaces the colonial question and, with it, the conflict over territory that Jewish settlement entailed.” The archaeological findings presented as evidence of Jewish settlement here millennia ago are deployed as the ultimate unreturnable serve — “we were here before you,” so the argument goes, with the implied follow-up of “and by proving it, we’ll be here after you too.”

To this end, the abuse of archaeology here has produced moments of structural violence for Palestinians that are ordinarily associated with security imperatives — the aforementioned demolitions and restrictions on freedom of movement, takeovers of areas declared as ‘archaeological zones’ (as opposed to the more frequently-encountered firing zones), increased surveillance. Yet the perpetuation of these abuses in the name of archaeology has a far more insidious nature than their deployment in security, as they are conducted under the supposedly benign auspices of historical exploration. The connection to academic and cultural interests immediately deflects wider questions about the need for these disruptions and the depth of their harm to the local population. In this regard, archaeology is the new security.

Israeli police oversee the demolition of a Palestinian home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Settler organizations Elad and others have worked to take over and demolish Palestinian homes in order to move Jewish families in. (File photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

Israeli police oversee the demolition of a Palestinian home in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Settler organizations Elad and others have worked to take over and demolish Palestinian homes in order to move Jewish families in. (File photo: Keren Manor/Activestills.org)

The key player in this situation — aside from the government — is the settler group Elad, also behind such activities as taking over Palestinian homes in the middle of the night, and hiring ‘caretakers’ (job requirements: gun ownership) to ‘look after’ empty Palestinian homes earmarked for settlers. The connections between Elad — an organization with a clearly-stated objective of “Judaizing” East Jerusalem — and the government are well-known; specifically, the cooperation of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) with the group has led to the increasing relinquishment of archaeology as an academic pursuit to the organization’s ideological goals. The modus operandi of Elad perfectly encompasses the modern outcomes of archaeology in Israel.

The establishment of the City of David national park and visitors’ center in Silwan is a salient example: the attractive entrance, dulcet music, portentous signs pointing out the area’s Biblical heritage, and the always-reassuring presence of a well-appointed gift shop have an anaesthetizing effect on visitors, and put up a highly-effective smokescreen in front of the reality of the Palestinian connection to (and presence in) the area.

Furthermore, the running of an appealing tourist destination squarely in the middle of occupied territory has the additional effect of normalizing the occupation and whitewashing its impact on Palestinians.The majority of visitors to the City of David park have no idea that the ground they are walking on is contested, that the area they are in is not recognized under international law as belonging to Israel, or that the money they spend on a coffee at the park’s cafe will be funneled straight back into the already overflowing coffers of a racist, and at times violent, right-wing organization. Few, too, will know that a local Palestinian community center featuring a playground and cafe was demolished to make way for the City of David visitors’ center.

The importance and success of the City of David park (from the perspective of its founders and supporters) is indicative of the fact that the resurgence in archaeology’s popularity in Israel has gone hand-in-hand with the rise and increasing political power of religious Zionism. That the gap between the worldview of groups such as Elad and the government is continuously shrinking is as dangerous in its impact on archaeology as it is in all areas that religious Zionism has muscled in on — the Biblical blueprint is being dragged up around our feet, seeking to use what is under the ground as evidence of divine right and the political and territorial sovereignty it supposedly affords us.

Those who are not in step with the settler agenda would do well to remember George Orwell’s assessment in ‘1984’ that “[w]ho controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.” As the ground in Israel-Palestine is dug up in the name of God and government, and as history is subjugated to the apparatus of power, there is precious little left standing in the way of control.

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    1. Bruce Gould

      Netanyahu’s nonsensical speech deconstructed in today’s New York Times:

      “One word did not appear in Netanyahu’s speech: Palestine. The statelessness of the Palestinians is the real long-term threat to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Iran has often been a cleverly manipulated distraction from this fact.”


      Reply to Comment
      • Pedro X

        Off topic as usual Bruce.

        Now an alternate opinion:

        Charles Krauthammer: Netanyahu’s Churchillian warning

        In its near-70 year history, Israel has never once asked America to fight for it. Not in 1948 when 650,000 Jews faced 40 million Arabs. Not in 1967 when Israel was being encircled and strangled by three Arab armies. Not in 1973 when Israel was on the brink of destruction. Not in the three Gaza wars or the two Lebanon wars.

        Compare that to a very partial list of nations for which America has fought and for which so many Americans have fallen: Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Vietnam, Korea, and every West European country beginning with France (twice).

        Change the deal, strengthen the sanctions, give Israel a free hand. Netanyahu offered a different path in his clear, bold and often moving address, Churchillian in its appeal to resist appeasement. This was not Churchill of the 1940s, but Churchill of the 1930s, the wilderness prophet. Which is why for all its sonorous strength, Netanyahu’s speech had a terrible poignancy. After all, Churchill was ignored.

        Reply to Comment
        • Bryan

          Pedro – you are far too intelligent and well-informed to be peddling this sort of shite, and therefore we must assume that it is your day-job to earn dirty shekels working for the Hasbara department. You know perfectly well that “In its near-70 year history, Israel has [never once] asked America to fight for it” – in 2002 when Netanyahu implored the US government that “There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is seeking and is working and is advancing to the development of nuclear weapons. No question whatsoever…. Two decades ago it was possible to thwart Saddam’s nuclear ambitions by bombing a single instillation, but today nothing less than dismantling his regime will do.” (see http://thebilzerianreport.com/as-israeli-pm-netanyahu-discusses-irans-nukes-lets-not-forget-his-lies-about-iraqs-wmds/) and in 2015 when Netanyahu interrupted his election campaign to make frantic overtures to America to wage war on Iran. You know perfectly well that small disorganized, incompetently led Arab armies entered the territory proposed by the UN for a Palestinian state in May 1948 only after Israel had started conquering these areas. You know perfectly well that Israel attacked Egypt in 1967. You know perfectly well that the limited Arab action in 1973 was to force Israel to the peace table. You know perfectly well that Israel’s wars (duck-shoots) in Gaza and Lebanon have been Israeli wars of choice, often synchronized with the Israeli election cycle. You know perfectly well that the only thing moving about Netanyahu’s speech to Congress were bums moving out of seats as Adelson’s millions were distributed. You know perfectly well that Netanyahu is no Churchill – but still you keep insulting the intelligence of readers here just as your leader did in Washington.

          Reply to Comment
          • Pedro X

            Netanyahu in 2002 was not in government and did not speak for the Israeli government. Ariel Sharon who spoke for the Israeli government told George Bush not to occupy Iraq unless he had a good exit plan, which he did not. The Americans did not listen to Sharon and the rest is history.

            Re the Arab armies, Jordan was not incompetently led or trained. It had a British officer of experience leading them backed by the might of the British Empire. Also Jordan attacked Jewish positions in Judea and Samaria before the withdrawal of British troops and took part in the massacre in Kfar Etzion. The Jordanians shelled West Jerusalem with shells and participated in the attempted genocide of Jewish population in West Jerusalem. Then it ethnically cleansed Judea and Samaria, including the Old City, of all Jewish life and destroyed Jewish religious sites.

            In 1967 the Egyptians blocked Israeli shipping in the Straits of Tiran, kicked out the peace keepers out of the Sinai and moved its army into the territory, signed pacts with other Arab states and the armies of 3 Arab states massed near Israel’s borders. The Jordanians fired on the Israelis first before Israel attacked Jordan’s positions and liberated the West Bank from foreign control.

            The war of 1973 was a war which attempt to eliminate Israel. Only a couple of damaged tanks blocked a Syrian army from invading Israel. The resourcefulness of Israeli leaders and generals turned the tables on the Egyptians or they would have been flowing across the frontier. In the end the Egyptians essentially got the same peace as Golda Meir had offered in 1972 to Sadat.

            You are right about 1982. Israel chose not to live under attack from Palestinian mortars, artillery and attacks. It entered Lebanon and completely destroyed the Palestinian army. It pushed the Palestinian leadership completely out of Lebanon. In 1996 and 2006 Israel hit Hezbollah terrorists. In 2000, 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2014 it decided not to live under the suicide bombs of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Fatah nor the rockets and mortars of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

            Netanyahu of course is not Churchill just his successor in the modern world. Netanyahu has the added benefit of having seen the outcome of world war II, the Holocaust, and the fanatical leadership of Iran which sent its own children to walk into Iraqi mine fields as human bomb sweepers and bombers to kill Jews in Argentina and other areas of the world since then.

            Reply to Comment
          • Bryan

            You are right that Netanyahu was not in the Israeli government when he lied to Congress about Iraqi WMD, but he was a former PM, soon to become Foreign Minister, and claimed to be close enough to Israeli intelligence to contradict dozens of nuclear inspectors that Iraq’s centrifuges were hidden underground. Other agents of Israel like AIPAC played a major role in persuading the Bush regime, which admittedly did not need much persuading, to attack Iraq, since the neo-Cons who comprised the Project for a New American Century had already advised Netanyahu to change Israeli policy in the 1996 policy document “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm” – and in a very similar way, involving the ousting of Saddam.

            Jordan did have the best of the Arab forces in 1948 but a special relationship had been cultivated by the Zionists and King Abdullah, and the two were to remain “the best of enemies”. As Avi Shlaim writes “Throughout the war King Abdullah continued to pursue limited objectives and made no attempt to encroach on Jewish state territory”.

            Intelligence services in the US and Israel and leading generals who participated in the fighting in 1967 are unanimous that Egypt posed no threat to Israel, despite Israel having attacked it only 11 years earlier. Israel made a unilateral attack and then denied this to the world community, frustrating a planned meeting of an Egyptian delegation with the Americans that could almost certainly have solved contention over the straits of Tiran, which Egypt had even offered could be subject to arbitration via the World Court (meeting with U Thant, May 24th).

            In 1972 Egypt had expelled 15,000 Soviet military advisers and repeatedly pressed the USA to put pressure on Israel for a full peace treaty involving withdrawal from Sinai. As Avi Shlaim says “The Arab aim in launching the war [of 1973] was to break the political deadlock and to provoke an international crisis that would force the superpowers to intervene and put pressure on Israel to withdraw from the territories it had captured in June 1967.” Egypt wanted merely to cross Suez and entrench itself on the opposite bank and Syria to merely recapture a portion of Golan – most definitely not an attack on Israel but a recapture of a small part of territories they had held only a few years earlier in order to drive forward a peace process.

            The 1982 invasion of Lebanon was absolutely not a warranted Israeli response to PLO aggression. In July 1981 American diplomat Philip Habib brokered a ceasefire between Israel and the PLO, but Ariel Sharon intent on regime change in Lebanon responded to an attack on an Israeli ambassador by a dissident Palestinian resistance group (not the PLO) to persuade PM Begin of the need to make a limited response which Sharon was determined to convert into a full-scale invasion of Lebanon.

            And so on and so forth. There is a quite clear internationally agreed version of the conflict researched by Israeli and international historians, based on the archives of many nations – and there is a completely contradictory narrative peddled by Zionist apologists, who have the intellectual integrity of a weasel. You’ll be telling us next that Israel did not deliberately attempt to sink the USS Liberty, has no nuclear weapons and does not choose to attack Gaza every time an election is in the offing.

            Reply to Comment
    2. Whiplash

      Israel does not have to create a national mythology; it has a national history proved by monuments and records of neighboring countries to attest to its national existence. The Merneptah Stele confirms the existence of an Israeli people in the 13th century b.c.e. The Tel Dan Stele, Mesha Stele, Adad-nirari III’s Nimrud slab, Rimah stele , Kurkh Stele and Black Obelisk all confirm the existence of an Israeli state and the existence of the House of David Royal line including Omri and his sons and King Ahab. The Stele of Tiglath-Pilesar III confirms the existence of Israel and its king.

      Archeologists and lay persons have been interested in history and archeology since ancient Greek times. So why should Israelis be any less curious about their national history then the Egyptians or the Greeks?

      Reply to Comment
      • Bryan

        The major exhibit for the defence is pretty dubious. The consensus among scholars is that the Merneptah Stele may refer to Israel, but even so it is entirely unclear who, what or where Israel was, and certainly does not prove that an Israeli state existed. Very much as an afterthought, in line 27 of a stone tablet celebrating the Pharaoh’s victories it refers to Israel’s seed being wasted. This is a repeated, formulaic phrase to declare victory over a defeated nation or people group whom the Egyptian army had conquered. It is probable that somewhere in the hill country of central Canaan, or possibly across the River Jordan there were a group (either nomadic pastoralists or settled farmers) who identified themselves as “Israel” but were utterly defeated by the Pharaoh’s chariot army. That fully accords with the archaeological record which suggests that by the thirteenth century groups had emerged from Canaanite society which were somewhat distinctive (e.g. do not appear to have eaten pig). This however is very, very far short of an endorsement of Israel’s current state or its oppression of its Palestinian neighbours.

        The Tel Dan stele is a few shattered fragments of stone that indicate that in the 9th century (probably) Aram was a major state in the region and had a victory over a group called the House of David. The Mesha stele, also incomplete and from the 9th century, relates that the people of Moab had recently been subjugated by King Omri of Israel, but had now been liberated. The Tel al-Rimah stele (about 780 BCE) celebrates campaigns by an Assyrian king and simply mentions that there was a king Joash of Samaria.

        These and similar finds certainly do not verify Israel’s national history – they simply demonstrate there were kingdoms of Judea and Samaria, without telling us anything of their wealth and power, EXCEPT that they were often defeated.

        What archaeology in reality tells us is that Israel’s national mythology is mostly false. Archaeology confirms that is no four thousand year history of the Jews. The tales of Noah, Abraham, Moses and other key figures are simply tribal myths, totally uncorroborated by archaeology, and brimful of anachronisms (in Abraham’s case a much later spice trade, domesticated camels, and the presence of Philistines). The Hebrews were never enslaved in Egypt, never wandered in Sinai for forty years, never acquired a monotheistic religion, tablets of stone or an Ark of the Covenant under a leader who supposedly wrote the first five books of the Bible. There was no violent conquest of Canaan; there were no walls of Jericho to come tumbling down. There was no United monarchy under David, and Jerusalem was a desperately poor country village when it supposedly became a national capital. There was no huge state from the river of Egypt to the Euphrates, and Judea only survived as a state as a client of Assyria or Egypt or Babylon or the Persians. There was no enforced Exile in the first or second century AD, since Jewish migrants had much earlier colonized areas of the Mediterranean (especially Egypt, Libya, Turkey), and Jewish peasant farmers remained in Palestine to be converted to Christianity and later Islam, just as large numbers of pagans were converted to Judaism in Europe and North Africa during the later years of the Roman Empire.

        Honest archaeology largely contradicts not only the Bible but also the national myths that primarily secular Zionists have so assiduously cultivated. (See the work of William Dever, Ze’ev Herzog, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman.)

        Reply to Comment