21 April 2017 | Salaamedia
Image:Archaeologist, Abeer Zayaad meeting former Robben Island political prisoner, Laloo Chiba.
“Genocide”, as a Burmese scholar noted recently, “begins with an attack on identity and history. The victims never existed and…will never exist”.
Arguably, nowhere is this assault on historical identity more brazen today then in modern day Israel.
“There were no such thing as Palestinians…” Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously said in 1969. “They did not exist.”
Salaamedia is currently hosting Jerusalem-based Palestinian archaeologist, Abeer Ahmed Zayyad, in South Africa, to shed light on this oft-neglected dimension of the Middle East conflict.
Her visit comes with a backdrop of Israel readying itself to commemorate 50 years of occupation in Jerusalem, an occasion the Tel Aviv regime has opted to dub “50 years since the liberation of Jerusalem.”
The logo that will feature on all its official ‘Jerusalem Day’ jubilee events in June, features an Israeli flag flying atop the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and Masjid al Aqsa accompanied by the above slogan.
Unveiling the logo earlier this year, Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev stressed that part of the image featured “an Israeli flag that has returned to fly above the old city walls, the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount.”
Of late, Regev has also been at the forefront of working to establish a new advocacy foundation to promote Jewish links to the Al-Aqsa Mosque to coincide with the anniversary.
With a $544 000 annual budget, the Temple Mount Heritage foundation would be responsible for “research, information and advocacy” about the Jewish connection to the site. The proposed foundation, will produce video shorts in a variety of languages and develop courses reinforcing “Jewish ties” to the holy site and raise the issue on social media.
Simultaneously – it was announced in early March, that David Be’eri, a controversial right-winger and founder of settler organisation Elad, who has led the movement to renovate the City of David project and increase the Jewish presence in East Jerusalem was one of two recipients of the prestigious Israel Prize for lifetime achievement.
Some who closely monitor Israel’s settlement enterprise may have wondered why a person whose activity is limited to a single neighbourhood in East Jerusalem was selected for the accolade, observed archaeologist Yonathan Mizrachi on +972 blog.
Although the impact of the settlement, which is scattered throughout Silwan, is undeniable, Mizrachi went on, “Be’eri won the Israel Prize for something far more substantial: inspiring the Israeli people to identify with the settler enterprise, an unthinkable task when he first began 30 years ago.
“Be’eri understood what any marketing expert knows: that in order to sell, you have to appeal to emotion. Today, many visitors to the City of David archaeological site in Silwan truly feel that this is “where it all began,” as per Elad’s slogan. Be’eri and Elad may as well write a patent for identifying the tremendous latent potential in archaeology as a means to advance the settler enterprise.”
The underpinnings of Be’eri’s prowess in the eyes of the Israeli establishment are two: presenting the site as the capital of King David, the Biblical founding father of the Jewish nation, and the branding of the Roman street as a historical “pilgrim’s route” to the Second Temple. In doing so, says Mizrachi, the City of David has taken on mythical dimensions in Israeli consciousness, and in complete disproportion to the fact that the area in question is little more than an archaeological mound with remains in various degrees of degradation.
Many of the archaeological finds, argues the dissenting archaeologist, are contentious or subject to discussion, but the stirring of emotions from such ideologically driven projects have enabled acts of dispossession that are subject to intense scrutiny elsewhere.
“Dressed up in the respectable guise of archaeology, Be’eri and his colleagues succeeded in concealing from many intelligent people the fact that City of David is situated in the heart of one of the most densely populated Palestinian villages in East Jerusalem — arguably in the most sensitive point in the city. Thanks to archaeology, Be’eri is free to continue Judaizing an area key to any political solution for Jerusalem,” Mizrachi continues.
The abuse of archaeology here, adds writer Natasha Roth, has produced moments of structural violence for Palestinians that are ordinarily associated with security imperatives —demolitions and restrictions on freedom of movement, takeovers of areas declared as ‘archaeological zones’ (as opposed to the more frequently-encountered firing zones) and 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.”
Al Aqsa encircled
A 2016 UNESCO resolution “deeply deplored” the failure of Israel, the occupying Power, to cease the persistent excavations and works in East Jerusalem particularly in and around the Old City of Jerusalem, and reiterated a request to the occupying power to prohibit all such works in conformity with obligations under the provisions of the relevant UNESCO conventions, resolutions and decisions.
Archaeologists like Mizrachi accuse Israel of co-opting archaeology in making rapid changes to the physical landscape around Masjid al-Aqsa to obscure the area’s Islamic character and create an ever-more arduous “obstacle course” for worshippers.
“The big picture is that Israel is weakening the Muslim and Palestinian presence there so that Israeli Jews can believe they are the true owners of the site.”
Various Israeli archaeological activities, he told journalist Jonathan Cook in 2015, had almost completed Israel’s encirclement of the al-Aqsa compound, isolating it from Palestinian neighbourhoods of East Jerusalem.
Mizrachi cited measures such as:
* The extension of secretive excavations and tunnelling around the compound to create an “underground Jewish city” on the western and northern flanks of the Haram;
* The transfer of an archaeological park on the western and southern walls of al-Aqsa to an extremist Jewish settler organisation. Elad’s role at the Davidson Centre was “disturbing,” he said, because it brought the settler group to the foot of the Al-Aqsa compound. Elad, he added, was trying to connect its Silwan complex with the Davidson Centre, as a way to reinforce an exclusive Jewish narrative about ancient Jerusalem.
* The enforced closure of a historic but active Muslim cemetery, Bab ar Rahmah, the length of the eastern side of the compound, denying Palestinian families access under the pretext that it falls within an Israeli national park.
Israel had also increased security restrictions for Palestinians on the main thoroughfare through the Old City’s Muslim Quarter to al-Aqsa, further limiting access, Mizrachi noted.
“The goal of all these changes is to emphasise the Jewish character of the environment around al-Aqsa, both above and below ground,” he said.
Over time, Mizrachi warned, the Haram was getting ever more isolated from its Arab and Islamic surroundings.
“The work of archaeology in Palestine/Israel is a cardinal institutional location for the ongoing practice of colonial nationhood,” wrote Nadia Abu El-Haj in her Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society, “producing facts through which historical-national claims, territorial transformations, heritage objects, and historicities [sic] ‘happen.’”
And as the religious right flexes its muscles across Israeli politics, the propensity to deploy archaeology has become far more pronounced.
With the gap between the worldview of extremist groups such as Elad and the government continuously shrinking, Natasha Roth points out the inherent dangers of “the Biblical blueprint…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.”
Commenting on the practice of ancient artefacts becoming fodder at the political altar, Al-Monitor’s Yuval Avivi, observes that archaeology in Israel “has often been steeped in ideology, where stakeholders use some of the findings in instinctive and emotional ways.”
“Archaeology is connected to the Zionist ethos, to identity, to internal tensions in Israel. The destruction of history, or its discovery, is part of the struggle for legitimacy,” adds Professor Yossi Shain, the chair of the diplomacy program in the political science department at Tel Aviv University, quoted by Al-Monitor.
In the introduction to the book “Under the Surface,” authored by a late head of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which explores the link between archaeology and politics in Israel, Shain highlights another example of what he considers a powerful archaeological tool Israel has exploited for ideological gain: Masada.
“The Masada archaeological site was uncovered in a dig in the 1960s and has been used for years as the venue for the induction of new IDF recruits. On such ceremonies, the recruits declare, “Masada shall never fall again.” This slogan transforms the Masada story of Jewish rebels opposing the Roman Empire into a symbol of everlasting Jewish resistance.”
Historical tours organised by ideologically driven Zionist organisations in Jerusalem romanticize a preferred version of history, and airbrush all others, as Mizrachi points out:
“After three hours on an Elad tour, you are convinced that you are at a site that is solely Jewish. Canaanite, Byzantine, Muslim and of course Palestinian findings are shunted aside. Jerusalem has 4000 years of history, and they concentrate on the glorious stories of Solomon, David and Hezekiah, for whom there are no archaeological findings linking them to the site. When you present the story this way to hundreds of thousands of visitors from all over the world, it is a tool with a great deal of political power and a way of justifying the act of settling the area.”
Whilst Israel has gained a particular mastery of enlisting history in a range of sophisticated ways, the practice is by no means unique, and has its parallels in many other former domains of colonialism around the world.
In an online reflection on archaeologically-induced dispossession in Silwan, Dr. Donald N. Rallis, a geographer currently residing in Cambodia, draws similarities with his experiences in South Africa.
“I found this story all too familiar,” he writes. “As a child growing up in South Africa, I was taught the apartheid version of South African history. Prior to the 17th century, I learned, South Africa was devoid of human inhabitants. Then, in about 1652, just as white settlers arrived at the southern tip of Africa, black Africans crossed the Limpopo River moving south. As whites moved north into the central parts of South Africa, blacks settled along the fringes of the country, producing a “natural” geography of settlement and segregation that the policies of apartheid, I was told, recognized and respected. My school syllabus didn’t include any mention of places like Mapungubwe, an archaeological site in northern South Africa where evidence had been found of a thriving African kingdom a millennium earlier. Artefacts from the site, including an impressive collection of gold objects, were closeted away in a safe at the University of Pretoria. Like the Muslim skeletons of Silwan, their existence would have undermined the settlers’ historical narrative.”
The skeletons Rallis refers to were discovered in Silwan in 2008, and dated to the 8th or 9th century C.E. (two centuries after the Muslim conquest of Jerusalem). In a violation of Israeli law, the skeletons were removed without reporting them to the Israeli Ministry of Religious Services.
Milan Kundera famously noted that the struggle of man against power was “the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
It is an axiom all the more relevant to consider now, for all those moved to seek justice for the Palestinian people, given Israel’s multi-pronged attempts to erase Palestinian heritage and manipulate history, in the process forging new geographical realities and imposing greater degrees of occupation and territorial domination.
For as George Orwell posited “[w]ho controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”