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J. Bohannon/Science

Waiting for peace.
The Temple Mount will be at the epicenter of a protective "Heritage Zone" around historic Jerusalem.

A Middle East Peace Accord ... for Artifacts

By: 
John Bohannon
2008-04-09 (All day)

A small group of archaeologists is hoping to make a difference in one of the world's most divisive conflicts. At a private gathering in Jerusalem yesterday, Israeli academics proposed a plan for divvying up antiquities and control of religious sites between Israel and Palestine when--and if--peace is ever achieved. The idea is to ease political negotiations by taking the controversial issue off the table. But some just learning of the plan are skeptical it will succeed where past efforts have failed.

At issue is control of archaeological sites and material. Since the 1967 War, Israelis have excavated extensively in the West Bank, removing artifacts to storage facilities controlled by the Israeli government. If a Palestinian state is ever created, the question is whether some or all of that material would be repatriated.

For the past 5 years, Lynn Dodd and Ran Boytner, archaeologists at the University of Southern California and the University of California, Los Angeles, respectively, have worked on the plan in near secrecy, conferring with a small team of Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists. The two sides have never before "sat down to achieve a structured, balanced agreement to govern the region's archaeological heritage," says Dodd. "Our group got together with the vision of a future when people wouldn't be at each other's throats, and archaeology would need to be protected irrespective of which side of the border it falls on."

The plan calls for a protective "Heritage Zone" around the oldest part of Jerusalem, extending to the city's 10th century boundaries during the Crusades. Archaeological sites in the zone would be made accessible to anyone, regardless of nationality, and any manipulation of sites would have to be done with full transparency. The plan also recommends the repatriation of all artifacts to the state in which they were originally found since 1967. To house all the material on the Palestinian side, new museums and conservation laboratories would be created.

Few of the archaeologists who authored the plan have made their identities public, fearing being branded traitors by their own people, losing their jobs, or even being killed, says Boytner: "People who participated did so at great risk." Just making a list of the "tens of thousands of artifacts and hundreds of sites" proved difficult, says David Ilan, one of the plan's authors and director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology in Jerusalem. The team sued the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) and won a court injunction compelling it to release records from archaeological digs in Palestinian territory. "This filled in many gaps," says Ilan.

About 50 Israeli archaeologists, including top officials from IAA, showed up yesterday at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute in Jerusalem to hear the team make its case, says Boytner. Ilan was prepared for the worst but says "surprisingly, the overwhelming response was positive and congratulatory. Not a single person spoke against the document, but some suggested minor improvements." Hanan Eshel, an archaeologist at Israel's Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, says he supports the plan. "What we all agree is that this should continue. It's a beginning."

Despite the warm reception, the plan faces an uphill battle. "There have been many, many plans, blueprints, and road maps produced over the years," but previous efforts never won consensus on both sides of the divide, says Patrick Daly, an archaeologist at the Asia Research Institute in Singapore who has been visiting faculty at An-Najah National University in Nablus in the West Bank. "When plans supported by the E.U., Russia, and the American president fail to actually change the situation there, I am doubtful that an unofficial document drawn up by some well-meaning archaeologists will make any difference."

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