ScienceDaily (Apr. 11, 2008) — Israelis and Palestinians may not be able to agree right now on their present or future, but, if a pair of Los Angeles archaeologists have their way, they soon will see eye to eye on their past.
Working tirelessly for the past five years, Ran Boytner, a University of California, Los Angeles archaeologist and Lynn Swartz Dodd, an archaeologist at the University of Southern California, have guided a team of prominent Israeli and Palestinian archaeologists to arrive at the first-ever agreement on the disposition of the region's archaeological treasures following the establishment of a future Palestinian state.
"Israelis and Palestinians never previously had sat down to achieve a structured, balanced agreement to govern the region's archaeological heritage," said Dodd, a lecturer in religion and curator of USC's Archaeological Research Collection. "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."
With dozens of high-ranking Israeli, Palestinian, U.S. and international statesmen and Palestinian archaeologists already aware of the Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group Agreement, the 39-point document now faces its toughest audience: Israeli archaeologists whose country would cede control over tens of thousands of artifacts and hundreds of sites.
"We're talking about putting your precious archaeological heritage — things you believe your ancestors created — in the hands of what you now consider to be your enemy," Dodd said. "We're asking enemies to become partners."
"According to international law, if there is a future Palestinian state, the Israelis will have to return all archaeological artifacts to the Palestinian state," said Boytner, director for international research at the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at UCLA. "That, for the [Israeli] right wing, would be a major rallying point to oppose the peace process. Therefore, archaeology could be a deal-breaker in future peace negotiations. But if we can deal with archaeology, we can help create a stable peace process that will be respected by both sides for years to come."
The negotiating team presented their case to 200 Israeli archaeologists on April 8 at a four-hour conference at the Van Leer Institute, a Jerusalem nonprofit dedicated to enhancing and deepening Israeli democracy.
In a parallel effort, the team spent three years tracking down and itemizing more than 1,500 sites and tens of thousands of artifacts that would fall into a legal limbo if a two-state system were adopted, as previous peace plans have suggested. Assembled through investigation of scholarly reports about the excavations, the use of Freedom of Information Act requests and, finally, legal action, the resulting electronic database also includes the current location of artifacts removed from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including those removed from the Rockefeller Museum, an East Jerusalem archaeological museum that houses a large collection of artifacts unearthed in excavations conducted in Palestine beginning in the late 19th century. The information now is available on request to researchers, policymakers and politicians, but the team hopes to make it available soon over the Internet.
At issue is control of all archaeological material recovered inside the borders of a future Palestinian state. Palestinians have expressed the desire to control such resources within their boundaries. But since the 1967 War, Israelis have excavated extensively in the West Bank, deciding where to excavate and then removing the artifacts to storage facilities controlled by the Israeli Civil Administration.
Yet, as much as Palestinians have expressed the desire to control such cultural heritage, they can also view preservation efforts with suspicion.
Participants credit Israel-born Boytner, whose expertise is actually Andean archaeology, with getting the ball rolling. Long fascinated with "the role politics plays in archaeology in one of the greatest conflicts on earth right now," he decided to pursue an agreement following a chance meeting with an assistant to a leading negotiator for the Israeli government. Boytner was surprised to learn about the lack of progress on cultural heritage in past peace negotiations.
"Nobody was doing anything about it," Boytner said. "This was off the radar for everyone."
With the help of Dodd, who also studies the role of politics in interpreting the past, Boytner enlisted six of the region's most prominent working archaeologists and ultimately involved 10 institutions from around the world. To bankroll their activities, the team raised more than $150,000 in funds from a range of public and private donors, including USC, UCLA and the U.S. Institute of Peace, an independent, nonpartisan institution established and funded by the U.S. Congress with the goal of helping to prevent and resolve violent international conflicts.
Palestinian archaeologists have already expressed support for the document's provisions, which are now on file with the Israeli and Palestinian governments, the U.S. Department of State and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who is now the official envoy of the Middle East diplomatic "quartet" — the four outside entities (the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia) involved in mediating the peace process for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Of the five years so far devoted to the project, three have been spent in sometimes tense negotiations. On three occasions, in fact, professional facilitators were employed to keep discussions moving. But the team continued to meet — a total of four times over three years, in three different countries — often making the most headway over meals shared between the sessions. Stakes were high for the three Palestinian and three Israeli archaeologists who lent their expertise to the project.
"People who participated did so at great risk, professional and personal, to themselves," Boytner said. "It's not unheard of for Palestinians who are caught negotiating with Israelis to be treated as traitors, some being dragged to the street and shot dead. For the Israelis, it's not unheard of to be branded as traitors and therefore being denied positions or being fired or basically being blackballed."
"The collaboration and investment in future peace made by our Israeli and Palestinian colleagues should be highlighted," Dodd said. "They are the ones who made the radical choice to envision a shared future by joining this process and working together. Their role as peacemakers deserves emphasis."
To this day, only two participants — Rafi Greenberg, a lecturer in archaeology at Tel Aviv University, and David Ilan, director of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem — have agreed to be publicly identified. The other four have remained anonymous, fearing reprisals. Yet they all see themselves as private citizens trying with the only tool they have at hand to contribute to a process that so far has stumped professional statesmen.
"Even though we are archaeologists, we are peacemakers first," Boytner said.
To view a video on the archaeology plan, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wkRATNj8WDo.