Rebecca Trounson, "Archaeologists unearth bitterness in Jerusalem,"

from the Los Angeles Times, November 3, 1996

Gideon Avni feels helpless sometimes, his work in the shadow of the great stone walls of Jerusalem's Old City buffeted by wave after wave of angry rhetoric.

All he wants, says Avni, Israel's chief archaeologist for Jerusalem, is to uncover this city's extraordinary history, opening up the remnants of its long and troubled past to all who wish to see them. But even dusty relics become flash points here in the bitter struggle over an unhappily shared land.

"In this country, everybody is using archaeology to prove something to someone," Avni said one recent day as he lingered near a jumble of giant stone blocks just inside the Old City's southern wall.

Behind Avni lay the remains of a seventh century Islamic palace; beyond that, a Herodian-era street about 2,000 years old. Across the way, the crumbling walls and broken pilasters of other eras -- Mameluke and Byzantine, Crusader and Roman.

"Every stone we move here causes its own problems," he said quietly.

From Jerusalem's Old City to the legendary fortress of Masada, archaeology historically has been wielded here as a powerful weapon, used to back up or shoot down competing claims to this ancient land. But perhaps never more so than today, and nowhere as passionately as within this beloved, disputed city.

With the debate between Israelis and Palestinians about the future of Jerusalem becoming ever more explosive, arguments about its past have grown increasingly shrill.

Each side fears the other wants to ignore or readicate its history here in order to diminish its claims to the land.

The sensitivity of the archaeological debate was underscored last month with the deaths of at least 75 people in Israeli-Palestinian clashes touched off by what at first seemed almost a trivial matter; the Israeli government's decision to open a new door to a tourist tunnel in the Old City.

The action, hoever, involved a section of Jerusalem that could hardly be more sensitive, containing as it does sites sacred to Muslims and Jews.

The specter of violence recently was raised again, about yet another perceived change in Jerusalem's delicate balance. The city's Islamic authorities announced a plan to inaugurate a new prayer area near the closely clustered holy sites, prompting warnings from Israeli security officials that the decision could spark more violence, this time by extremist Jews.

Neither Palestinian outrage about the tunnel's new door nor predictions of Jewish anger about the new worship space should have been a surprise, experts say.

Neal Asher Silberman, a historian and author who studied archaeology at Jerusalem's Hebrew University, said rhetorical and real struggles are waged over ancient remains in political hot spots around the world, from Syprus to South Africa to the former Yugoslav federation.

"The past is always a metaphorical battlefield for the conflicts of the present," said Silberman, who has written extensively on archaeology and politics, including a biography of archaeologist and former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin.

For instance, archaeological sites such as Masada -- the mountaintop stronghold where a small group of Jewish zealots held out against the Roman army before committing suicide in A.D. 73 -- are easily politicized, he said. For many years, he said, Israeli army recruits were sworn in atop Masada.

The sites "become symbols that demand powerful reactions," Silberman said. "They're either saluted as the dogma of the state or used as a red flag that's waved in front of someone else. But this ... is a misuse of what archaeology can offer."

In the same way, the Jerusalem tunnel, and comments made by Israeli leaders stressing its significance to Jewish heritage, fueld the belief of many Palestinians that evidence of all but Jewish history here is often ignored, according to Silberman and others.

Since the tunnel crisis erupted, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority has tried to fight back, holding news conferences and offering lectures to accuse Israel of this tendency. In some cases, those speaking have also belittled Jewish history and claimed that Palestinians are descendants of the Canaanites, whose civilization preceded that of the Israelites.

Arafat caused alarm and some outrage in Israel with a recent speech in which he briefly appeared to claim the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, as a place sacred to Muslims too. The wall is considered the last vestige of Judaism's Second Temple, destroyed nearly 2,000 years ago.

"They are trying to prove their background in the way we are accused sometimes," said Amihai Mazar, chair of the archaeology department at Hebrew University.

A Palestinian archaeologist once airily discounted evidence of Jewish civilization in Jerusalem as "millimeters, not even centimeters" deep -- insignificant, he argued, among the great civilizations that have ruled the Holy City.

Others, including Palestinians speaking privately, said such claims were wrong, and counterproductive in the effort to resolve the two sides' political differences.

Archaeological discoveries should be viewed as enriching and expanding the history of the land for all its present-day inhabitants, several academics said.

"I consider these things part of the culture of Palestine," said Marwan abu Khalaf, director of the Palestinian-run Institute of Islamic Archaeology in East Jerusalem. "They belong to everyone."

But Palestinians spoke with one voice of what they said was a historical -- some said ongoing -- effort by Israel to ignore or even erase signs of Arab and Islamic history here.

They said this held true at excavations throughout the nation but was particularly egregious in Jerusalem, a city that is the focus of national and religious aspirations for both sides.

Hamdan Mohammed Taha, director of the antiquities department for the Palestinian Authority, said reports of archaeological excavations, especially those published up to the 1960s, tended to include only those layers before the Islamic period, which began in A.D. 661.

"From the very beginning, this was more or less a fault of the archaeology in Palestine," Taha said. "Archaeological research here was motivated by ideology and was linked to nationalism and Zionism."  These days, hoever, the tendency to focus on Jewish remains has been reversed among Israeli archaeologists, according to Avni and others. Several of their Palestinian counterparts, including Taha, generally agreed, saying younger Israeli archaeologists tend to have wider areas of scientific interest.

Avni pointed to the ongoing reconstruction of a palace from the early Islamic, or Umayyad, period near the Old City's southern wall as proof that Israel has a record of preserving some Islamic and Arab remains.

Of the latest archaeological crisis, antiquities authority officials said that they long ago recommended that a new door to the tunnel be created but that they were not consulted, or even notified, before it was done.

Previous Israeli governments had considered and rejected the idea of conpleting the passage, which has been open to visitors since 1991. But its proximity to the vast, raised plaza known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Arabs as Haram al Sharif, the Noble Sanctuary, made it too sensitive politically.

In the wake of the uproar, many of those interviewed said they worried whether Israelis and Palestinians can resolve the question of sovereignty about the riches buried in the land they share.

Some expect a tug of war, particularly about artifacts found by Israel in areas of the West Bank and Gaza later handed over to the Palestinian Authority.

"What happens when you have a continuous site that has everything from biblical to Islamic remains and beyond?" Silberman asked. "Does one side get the first 20 feet of the dig and the other get the next? Maybe they'll figure out how to work together."