‘First Deny Access, Then Call It State Land’ | Israeli University Holds Archaeological Dig in West Bank Area Claimed to Be Palestinian

While Bar-Ilan University insists that the dig follows guidelines by the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria, activist Bassem Tamimi says he has Jordanian documents proving his ownership over the land

Archaeologists at Bar-Ilan University have been conducting an archeological excavation for the past few weeks in a location called Khirbet Tibnah, close to the West Bank village of Nabi Salih. Villagers claim that the excavation is happening on privately owned land, but the university says that they are digging on state lands in accordance with the Civil Administration in Judea and Samaria.

The decision to dig in the West Bank is an unusual one. Most Israeli archaeologists refrain from digging in the West Bank since international journal publications tend to reject academic articles based on excavations in occupied lands because such digs contravene international law. The Second Protocol to The Hague Convention, which Israel has not signed, prohibits an occupier from excavating in occupied territory, other than conducting salvage operations necessary for preserving a site.

This is the first time excavations are being done at Khirbet Tibnah. However, surveys have been conducted at the site in the past. According to the Bar-Ilan website, Khirbet Tibnah was inhabited during the Bronze Age, and is identified with the biblical city of Timnath-Heres, described in the Bible as the residence and burial place of Joshua Bin-Nun.

The dig is led by Dr. Dvir Raviv, an archeologist who mapped the site in 2015. The mapping included sketches of the location of tombs, collections of pottery shards and the documentation of burial caves – all of which prove the existence of Jewish settlements in the area, according to the university. According to Bar-Ilan, the current excavation has yielded a spear tip dated to the second century C.E., pottery and coins.

The excavation at Khirbet Tibnah is being conducted on land belonging to the villages of Nabi Salih and Deir Nidham. Upon learning of the dig, villagers appealed to the Civil Administration, asking to stop it. They are represented by attorney Qamar Mashraki from the Haqel human rights NGO, which specializes in land law in the West Bank. The Emek Shaveh NGO which works to protect heritage rights also appealed to Dr. Raviv.

Bassem Tamimi, a known anti-occupation activist, was one of the people who turned to the Civil Administration. Tamimi told Haaretz that he has Jordanian documents proving his ownership over the land, which he presented to the Civil Administration. “In the past, people sowed wheat and barley there. Since the 70s, the army hasn’t allowed people to go there. The ruins are just an excuse for taking over the land and tilling it,” he said. “It’s political. First you deny access, then you call it state land.”

Masharqi also appealed to the Council for Higher Education, which approached Bar-Ilan. Regarding ownership over the land, the university claimed that there used to be a Jordanian army base at the site, proving that this was state land. Moreover, it said that aerial photos showed that the area had not been cultivated since 1967. Bar-Ilan’s rector, Amnon Albeck, wrote the council that the site has been the target of “unprecedented artifact theft” in recent years, “making any survey or excavation a salvaging operation, even if this is not defined as such by law.” The Civil Administration said that its official in charge of archaeology and ruins issued a permit for the excavation. The Emek Hashaveh NGO says that “any attempt to dominate archeological sites outside Israel’s sovereign territory is perforce a political act.”

Raviv, a lecturer at Bar-Ilan’s Department of Archaeology, told Haaretz that a university dig in the West Bank is indeed unusual, both because of the security risks involved and because most academic journals refuse to publish studies carried out in occupied territory. “Most prestigious international journals and academic presses do not accept primary findings from Judea and Samaria,” he says. “The editor sends it back, rejecting it while explaining that they abide by international conventions and international law, which prohibit an occupier’s excavations in occupied land.”

In reply to the question of why he decided to do so anyway, Raviv said that this wasn’t an easy decision and that his findings will be published in an Israeli periodical. “Since there is almost no excavation or archaeological research in these areas, there is much room for innovation,” he noted. Raviv added that it was not difficult to convince the university to hold the excavation there. He said that he did not talk to the villagers before he started, but when the excavation got underway, some of them arrived, and he showed them where it was taking place. “After a 15-20-minute conversation they understood, we exchanged phone numbers, and they showed great interest in the dig, so I invited them back,” he recalled. He added that the dig did not block any roads leading to the village and that residents can graze their flocks anywhere.

Even though most Israeli researchers tend to avoid excavating in the West Bank, several digs have been conducted there since the 1970s. Among these was an extensive survey by Dr. Adam Zertal from Haifa University. He studied the northern West Bank and excavated on Mount Eival, near Nablus. Other researchers from Tel Aviv University participated in digs in the City of David in east Jerusalem, together with the Elad NGO. Most digs in the West Bank are salvage excavations led by the archaeology officer of the Civil Administration, which is responsible for such activity in Area C. In recent years, most excavations have been done by Ariel University or through the initiative of settler organizations, in collaboration with American universities, usually Evangelical ones. All of them receive permits from the Civil Administration.

In 2014, human rights groups Emek Hashaveh and Yesh Din petitioned the High Court of Justice, demanding that the names of archaeologists active in the West Bank be published. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that their names would stay under wraps lest they be subjected to an academic boycott which would harm their livelihood and the institutions they belong to. Prof. Rafi Greenberg from the Archaeology Department at Tel Aviv University, a member of Emek Hashaveh, told Haaretz that most researchers with academic ties to the world refrain from excavating in occupied territory. But things were not always thus. “There was a generation of renowned archaeologists, such as Israel Finkelstein, who did work in the territories, but since the Oslo Accords and the first intifada, when the Palestinian issue received more attention, it became unacceptable,” he explained.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories responded: “The archaeology unit is charged with the preservation and development of archaeological sites in Judea and Samaria, with many resources devoted to the study and development of such sites. Regarding the excavations at the site you mention, we’d like to clarify that they are being conducted with a permit, given in accordance with the regulations of the Civil Administration. We emphasize that the permit is granted after careful study by relevant professionals.”