Why a pro-settler group wants to talk about ISIS

An Israeli group working in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan is presenting ISIS destruction of antiquities as a cautionary tale for its own struggle with Palestinians.

By Yonathan Mizrachi

Archaeological dig at City of David (rachelsharon/CC BY NC ND 2.0)
Archaeological dig at City of David (rachelsharon/CC BY NC ND 2.0)

A group that manages the City of David’s archaeological site in the heart of the village of Silwan in East Jerusalem, the “Elad Foundation in the City of David,” is holding its annual archeology conference, entitled “ISIS: Is it possible to stop the destruction?” It will deal in part with the destruction of antiquities in Iraq and Syria.

That the so-called ISIS group is destroying ancient ruins is indisputable. The organization documents it with videos and is proud of what it sees as symbolic conquests. Just this week the destruction of a major temple in the biblical city of Tadmor (Palmyra) in Syria was reported. But the conference title implies that aside from concern for antiquities and heritage, someone is also considering measures to prevent the destruction.

Elad is not interested in the destruction of antiquities in Iraq, but rather, here, in Silwan, on the Temple Mount, and in East Jerusalem. They say “ISIS” but the intention is perceived here in Jerusalem as “Islamic extremists.” Israeli organizations has not prevented the destruction of antiquities in Iraq and Syria, and, so far, neither has the international community. However, if we focus on the Israeli discourse on the destruction of antiquities, then, according to Elad there is much to be done.  The group has seen itself for a long time now to be on the forefront of fighting Muslims’ destruction of ancient ruins.

After construction undertaken by the Islamic Waqf led to the destruction of antiquities on the Temple Mount / Haram al-Sharif in the 1990s, it was Elad which invested funds and acted to sift the debris dumped into the Kidron Valley. To this day, it is one of the key projects that Elad finances and operates in East Jerusalem. But this activity, presented as an attempt to rescue the antiquities of the Temple Mount, has no archeological value and its importance is primarily educational and political, both in terms of having archaeologists engaged in sifting through the dirt, and with its links to settlers in East Jerusalem.

The message is clear: Muslims aims to destroy antiquities and Israel intervenes to prevent such atrocities.

Elad’s main struggle is to control Silwan. It operates the City of David archaeological site as a means of strengthening its grip on the village and presenting itself as an archaeological body interested in the ancient heritage of Jerusalem. In the eyes of the settlers who live in Silwan, only Elad is able to protect the antiquities. The Palestinians, they claim, are uninterested in them, or likely to harm the archaeological site once Israelis leave.

ISIS’ destruction of antiquities is raising fundamental questions about the relationship between archaeology and the western presence in the Middle East, such as, how the West makes use of archeology and who is responsible for antiquities and heritage sites. Archaeology began with colonialism in the Middle East in the early 19th century. In the past, the West saw a need to explore the sites and transfer the archaeological remains to its own palaces and museums. Later on, these ancient sites became part of the sovereign states wherein they were located. But even then, most of the research was done by western universities and the majority of visitors came from the West. The antiquities trade is also based on western customers who buy stolen antiquities from dealer coming from Arab countries.

From the 18th to the early 20th century, excavations were done without a coherent method, with an objective of finding valuable artifacts. These excavations damaged ancient sites as well as our ability to understand their evolution and history. Until the arrival of colonialism in the Middle East, a significant portion of the sites remained intact for thousands of years.

While archaeological research has long disregarded many of the methods used in past centuries, in Jerusalem, the Elad-funded Israel Antiquities Authority still considers them as legitimate tools in Silwan and in the Old City. For example, in the Givati Parking Lot excavations, the IAA removed Muslim layers, and excavated using tunnels and in underground spaces–methods that destroy antiquities and have been discontinued a century ago.

What the West did and sometimes is still doing in the name of the law or under rules it has devised and which are ostensibly in place to preserve heritage sites, ISIS does in front of cameras in the form of documented destruction. ISIS is destroying antiquities perceived to be part of a legacy of heresy and association with the West.

ISIS and right-wing organizations in Israel and the West are using archaeology for the same purpose–to distinguish themselves from others and to portray a division between ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ In conservative circles in the West that see Islam as a threat, the shock from the destruction of antiquities is related to the perception of the gap between the two cultures.

It is easy to forget that the Palestinians are not ISIS, that Elad is not a protector of antiquities as it presents itself to be, and that Jerusalem is a city whose heritage is shared. No matter how many ancient sites are being destroyed in the war in Syria or Iraq, it is here in Jerusalem where joint preservation of the relics of the past will ensure the future of those places and our ability to respect and accept one other.

Yonathan Mizrachi is an archaeologist and director of Emek Shaveh, an organization which deals with the role of archeology in the political conflict and in Israeli society

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