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Culture : Palestinians Starting to Unearth Their History : Westerners and Israelis used to control West Bank archeology. Now, the Palestinian Authority is sponsoring digs.

October 11, 1994|MARY CURTIUS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERICHO, West Bank — On a scarred hillock of barren soil, shaded by a square of white canvas, a group of determined Palestinians has started to reclaim the ancient history of their people.

Hamdan Mohammad Taha, the Palestinian Authority's director of archeological excavations in the Jericho area, explained the importance of the tiny oblong hole he and his assistants have dug under a blazing sun in this desert oasis.

"In the last 100 years, archeology was a foreign affair for most Palestinians," he said. "It was connected with people who come and dig in Palestinian soil, and then remove what they find. We are trying to change the view of the average people, to teach them that archeology is about history--their history."

Although he conceded that funding is uncertain, Taha has big ambitions.

He wants to guard sites under Palestinian control against looting, build a Palestinian archeological museum and initiate more digs. He also wants to persuade the still-struggling Palestinian Authority, the Yasser Arafat-led ruling body for Jericho and Gaza, that preserving archeological sites should be as important as developing Palestinian-controlled lands. The two goals sometimes come into conflict on the same piece of real estate.

Furthermore, Taha wants a commitment from Israel that it will eventually return archeological treasures removed during 27 years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. In 1992, more than a decade after their peace treaty, Israel finally agreed to return to Egypt the archeological finds that it removed during its occupation of the Sinai, Taha pointed out.

Most of all, Taha said, he wants to try to build a Palestinian archeology based on science, not on what he calls religious and political aims of archeology carried out in the Holy Land during Western Christian and Jewish Zionist digs in the past.

As Taha described his goals, Iman Saca, an archeology student, knelt nearby in the oblong hole, sifting the dirt carefully for bits of pottery or other clues that something substantial might lie farther down.

"It's an excellent thing," said Saca, 24, of Bethlehem, who earned her undergraduate degree in archeology from the University of Michigan. "We have the opportunity to participate in a dig, for the first time, directed and managed by Palestinians on their own land. This is a part of building a Palestinian future--finding our past."

For as long as any Palestinian can remember, foreigners were always in control of revealing and interpreting the rich archeological record of Palestine. First Westerners and then Israelis came to what was biblical Palestine looking for physical confirmation of biblical history. Palestinian Arabs complained that their history, and Islamic history, was being pushed aside.

"The 'archeological record' has been selectively used to document and sometimes defend the version of the past required by Christian and Jewish Zionists to justify the present occupation of Palestine," Albert Glock, an American archeologist who helped establish the department at Bir Zeit, a Palestinian University in the West Bank, alleged in a 1990 article in the Journal of Palestine Studies. "One result . . . has been the alienation of the native Muslim and Christian Palestinians from their own cultural past."

Israeli archeologists dispute that view of their approach, and say they never attempted to hide or overlook the record of Muslim or Palestinian life. "All Israeli excavations have been made according to accepted ethical practices of archeology," said Efrat Ohrbach, spokeswoman for the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

But Palestinians point to a last-minute sweep of the Jericho area, carried out in December by the Israeli Antiquities Authority, as evidence that Israeli archeologists are still reluctant to relinquish control of sites to Palestinians.

Dubbed Operation Scroll, the search dispatched 16 teams of archeologists to the northern Dead Sea area, land that was due to be handed over to the Palestinians. The Antiquities Authority said it hoped to find scrolls such as those discovered just south of Jericho between 1947 and 1956 that became known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Dead Sea Scrolls proved invaluable in explaining early religious practices in the Holy Land.

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No scrolls were discovered in the December sweep, but it left ill will among Palestinian and Israeli archeologists. Today, there is no cooperation between the Palestinian Antiquities Authority and its Israeli counterpart, according to Amir Drori, head of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

"Since 1967, people in the West Bank viewed archeology as part of the occupation system," said Mahmoud Hawari, a Hebrew University-trained archeologist who teaches at the Palestinian-run Institute of Islamic Archeology in Jerusalem.

Indeed, Hawari said, some Palestinians began engaging in systematic looting of archeological sites--seeing the robbery as an act of defiance against the occupation.

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