When an Archaeological ‘Find’ Can Evict Palestinians From Their Home

West Bankers are being issued more and more demolition orders for building on land that Israel designated as an archaeological site. Is it connected to a new organization that’s taken it upon itself to monitor such areas?

Mahmoud Bisharat lives with his family in a tiny West Bank village called Humsa al-Tahta, located above the Hamra checkpoint in the Jordan Valley. Last January, he was surprised to receive an order informing him that he was living in an archaeological site.

He was instructed to immediately destroy a number of buildings he owned in order to stop damaging the antiquities. If he didn’t cooperate, the order stated, he would be arrested or face a police complaint. “It was the first time I had heard that there are antiquities there, and my family has been here for decades,” he tells Haaretz. “My great-grandfather lived here.”

About two months after he received the order, which obliged him to destroy the well, olive trees and concrete casting around the structures, Bisharat was called in to the police station in the Ma’aleh Efraim settlement. They questioned him about the structures, but mainly about the well, which he said had been renovated 15 years ago by the Palestinian Authority.

“The [Israeli] Civil Administration has previously destroyed structures we have built, but the claim that it is because this is an archaeological site is new,” Bisharat says, stressing that the homes were built decades ago. The area where Bisharat lives was included in an archaeological survey conducted in 1972. “And if there are antiquities here, why did they come here in the past with heavy equipment to destroy buildings?” he wonders. “Isn’t that called destroying antiquities?”

At the end of the questioning, the police told him that a court date would be set.

Israel issued 118 demolition orders and warnings to stop destroying antiquities for structures built on archaeological sites in the West Bank in 2019, according to data from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, known as COGAT. That figure represents a 162 percent rise within two years – the number of such orders in 2017 was 45, and went up to 61 in 2018.

Last year, the regular mix of demolition orders was joined by a new player: the order to remove recently-built structures. While other demolition orders allow for a petition, a hearing and even an appeal, this new order gives residents just 96 hours to present a building permit. The Civil Administration started with enforcing this demolition order in areas designated as archaeological sites. According to COGAT figures, 15 such orders were given in 2019; seven led to demolitions. These orders were in addition to the demolition orders and warnings.

Hanania Hizmi, head of the Civil Administration Archaeology Unit, says he attributes the rise in the number of orders to “efficiency measures in our work and supervisory capabilities.” He adds, “Likewise, we identified a rise in Palestinian construction at archaeological sites – and enforcement was accordingly increased.”

It’s not clear whether there was indeed a rise in Palestinian construction, but the unit did recently gain more tools at its disposal. In 2019 it gained the authority to follow and investigate those suspected of damaging antiquities, and its staff has also grown. But something else could explain the rise in orders: the establishment of the Shomrim Al Hanetzach (Hebrew for “guarding eternity”) initiative to independently monitor Jewish archaeological sites in the West Bank.

The initiative grew out of the right-wing Regavim movement. Eitan Melet, the initiative’s coordinator, is wary of calling it a right-wing or settler organization, even though most of its members identify as such. “Our goal is to create a broad consensus that we need to protect our heritage,” Melet tells Haaretz during a tour of the Jordan Valley. “We took it upon ourselves to make the supervision process more efficient – hiking guides and archaeologists turn to us and tell us about the destruction of antiquities, and we report them further to the necessary people.” The organization says it reported 48 cases of construction, agricultural work or antiquities theft last year.

A ‘quiet ISIS’

The group focuses on reporting construction and theft at West Bank archaeology sites, and works together with other organizations reporting on such activities, like the Municipal Environmental Association of Judea and Samaria. Over the years the association has organized tours of sites for politicians, among them Bezalel Smotrich, Amir Ohana, Gilad Erdan and Michal Shir. Association officials claim that Palestinians build on top of antiquities in order to damage Jewish archaeological sites, which they describe as a “quiet ISIS.”

It’s difficult to assess the connection between the rise in enforcement and the work of the group, but local Palestinians feel its presence on the ground. Ziad Mahamri and his family, the only residents of the village of Bir Al-Id in the South Hebron Hills, also believe that the order he received recently came in the wake of a report by the group.

A community lived in the village until 2002, but its residents left because of a multitude of settler attacks and army closures. They waged a legal campaign to return to the village and won, but the harsh conditions – no connection to water or the electricity grid – caused them to slowly leave, leaving just Mahamri and his family.

Mahamri recently decided to use an ancient well near his home for collecting rainwater because bringing water from Areas A or B, as Palestinians with no running water have to do, requires traveling over either dirt roads or no road at all. “Transporting one cubic meter of water costs me 50 shekels, a price I can’t afford,” he explains. He emptied the well of sand to make it functional, but quickly received a cease-and-desist order to stop destroying antiquities.

Mahamri says he believes there is a connection between the Civil Administration’s rapid response and the presence of Regavim activists in the area. “They walk around here often and also use drones,” he says. After the order, he stopped the work on the well. The administration commented that Mahamri has the right to request a permit to use the well.

Raphael Greenberg, an associate professor of archaeology at Tel Aviv University, is one of the co-founders of Emek Shaveh, which fights against the political exploitation of archaeology. “The definition of a ‘site’ is a fluid matter in archaeology and stems in great part from the scientific and administrative goals of the definition,” he says. “The antiquities authority tends to serve development forces within the Green Line [Israel’s pre-1967 borders] and is prepared to push entire sites out of the way, as happened in [the west Jerusalem neighborhood] Motza, while here the use of an ancient well is cause for preventing development. Go find the differences.”

The past is part of the present

During the British Mandate period, about 1,000 archaeological sites were declared in the area that is now the West Bank – half of them within the parts designated as Area C. The Civil Administrations Archaeology Unit declared another 1,000 sites in Area C alone three years ago. The area has experienced relatively few archaeological excavations during the period of Israeli occupation because many researchers and universities avoid digging there due to political sensitivities. Archaeologists who spoke with Haaretz said the recognition of Ariel University led to a limited rise in the number of digs in the area.

COGAT declined to provide Haaretz with details about how many orders were issued to Israelis and to Palestinians, but conversations with Israelis and civic groups involved in the matter suggest that the lion’s share go to Palestinians.

Both officials and Regavim noted only one case in recent years in which Israelis received such an order: A contractor dumped dirt on an ancient press in Givat Ze’ev, leading to an investigation. One of the reasons that Palestinians receive more such orders is connected to a bigger problem – a lack of initiating and advancing development plans for Palestinian communities. Meanwhile, a planning council for the settlers constantly advances their plans.

Development plans do not receive final approval until the archaeology unit conducts a survey and gives it the go-ahead. According to data from the human rights group B’Tselem, fewer than 20 plans for the 3,000-odd Palestinian villages in Area C have been approved over the years.

Archaeological surveyors generally mark off a relatively wide area around the heart of an archaeological site because there’s a high chance that remains will be found around it. In most cases construction is completely halted at the site’s center but building is allowed on its edges, with rescue digs or archaeological supervision to document the findings before construction. A permit from the Civil Administration Archaeological Unit must also be obtained before any action involving an item deemed an antiquity: caves, stones or water wells.

The small village of Beit ‘Or al-Fouqa in the South Hebron Hills, along the Green Line, is located entirely within an area designated as an archaeological site. Most of the village’s homes have been given demolition orders over the years. The site was never excavated, but an archaeological survey was conducted, and an additional area marked off around the heart of the site contains remnants of buildings, stone fences and underground caves.

Villagers lived in the caves until 20 years ago. “Over the years people starting leaving the caves and building on the land,” says village resident Ahmad Hawamda. “After all, we all wanted electricity and to get ahead in life.” In 2016 village residents started getting demolition orders they never encountered before: “cease and desist from the destruction of antiquities.”

They received 23 such orders over the years, mostly for building temporary structures. The archaeology unit says that 11 of the structures damaged antiquities and that it is unable to determine how much damage another 12 buildings did. The site was included in a survey conducted in 1967 but was never excavated. Hawamda says that some of the homes that received orders had been around for over 15 years. Village residents petitioned the High Court of Justice, demanding to legalize the structures, but the Civil Administration refused.

The court ordered the residents to submit a proposal for a development plan for legalizing the structures and ordered the Civil Administration to review it. The nongovernmental group Bamakom prepared the plan and recently submitted it to the Civil Administration. The organization stated that the buildings in the village did not damage antiquities because they are not located near them. Likewise, the NGO said there is no need to demolish homes to assess whether damage was done to antiquities, and proposed conducting a rescue excavation next to the homes.

“Historically, the moment archaeology began to differentiate between what is considered ancient and what is deemed modern is a critical moment for communities that live in villages that have been perpetually inhabited, for whom the past is also part of the present,” says Greenberg.

Consequently, he explains, finding anything defined as ancient in a courtyard can instantly turn its residents into criminals. He believes the conception of archaeology needs to change: Officials should work with residents on conservation while recognizing their needs. He notes that archaeological groups worldwide try to work this way, including the Palestinian nongovernmental group Riwaq – Center for Architectural Conservation, which engages in conservation work in partnership with West Bank residents.

“It’s a matter of every process having more dialogue with the people who live in these places,” Greenberg explains. “In the end, antiquities are destroyed because of unchecked development and because many villages have nowhere to grow – so everybody loses.”