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Looking to the future of Mideast's past

Two USC and UCLA professors help Israelis and Palestinians craft a proposed divvy of archaeological riches.

May 30, 2008|Ashraf Khalil | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — A pair of archaeology professors from crosstown rivals USC and UCLA are working together to help bring harmony to a small corner of the lengthy conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

For five years, Lynn Dodd of USC and Ran Boytner of UCLA have sought to come up with a plan for handling the rich archaeological heritage of the Holy Land should a binding peace deal be reached for the creation of a Palestinian state.

The pair organized the Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group, bringing together three Palestinian and three Israeli archaeologists to craft a blueprint for the eventual disposition of hundreds of historical sites and thousands of artifacts.

After three years of sometimes contentious negotiating sessions overseen by professional mediators, the group has formulated a nonbinding model that could be put into action once the final borders of a Palestinian state are defined. Their next step is to submit the proposal for discussion in June at the World Archaeological Congress in Dublin, Ireland.

"It's something very concrete that's based on an imaginary situation," said Rafi Greenberg, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist and member of the Israeli negotiating team.

The 39-point proposal attempts to navigate the tricky dynamics of a region where history, politics and national identity are intertwined.

"We were very aware of the symbolic weight that archaeology carries in that part of the world," Dodd said.

Recommendations include:

* Repatriation to Palestinian authorities of all artifacts excavated in the occupied West Bank since 1967.

* Ceding control of archaeological sites and artifacts to the state in which they lie, depending on where the final borders are drawn.

* A commitment by each side to maintain all sites and cooperate on artifact exchanges and joint exhibitions.

* An international effort to build Palestinian capacity with museums, labs and storehouses.

The Israeli-born Boytner presented the proposal April 8 at a seminar of Israeli archaeologists in Jerusalem and received what Greenberg and Boytner describe as a generally positive response. The agreement has gained consensus support among the relatively small Palestinian archaeological community.

"It's very fair," said Nazmi Jubeh, one of the Palestinian participants. "It protects the rights of Palestinians in terms of the artifacts."

One of the only objections, Greenberg said, came from Shuka Dorfman, the head of the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

"He said that archaeologists should not dabble in politics."

One archaeologist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that there was a general aversion among Israeli archaeologists to delving too deeply into potential hot-button political issues.

It's considered distasteful, the archaeologist said, "like breaking wind in public."

Palestinians are especially eager to claim all artifacts unearthed in the West Bank since the Israeli occupation began in 1967. Developing an accurate database of such artifacts was a struggle of several years for the working group members.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority has jurisdiction over sites in Israel and in all of Jerusalem. All excavations in the West Bank since 1967 are conducted by a separate authority that maintains its own warehouses and answers only to the Israeli military.

Greenberg says that when he requested excavation records, he was told, "This is sensitive information, and we can't give it to you."

Finally, Greenberg sued to obtain records on post-1967 West Bank excavations. An agreement was eventually reached for access to most of the records.

From the Israeli side, one of the immediate sticking points is the future status of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The ancient texts are viewed in Israel as a national treasure, and Israeli officials made it clear from the start that putting the scrolls into Palestinian hands was not an option.

"The Israelis are very emotional about them," Jubeh said.

At least some of the scrolls were unearthed on what is now Palestinian land, Greenberg said, but many first came to light when they turned up on the antiquities market.

The joint archaeology document states that the fate of certain highly sensitive artifacts should be addressed by the politicians during final negotiations.

"The Dead Sea Scrolls are a political issue. We recognize that will be a political decision," Boytner said.

And though all sides acknowledge that the scrolls probably will remain in Israeli hands, Boytner said, "there must be a legal way to do it. The Israelis can't just say, 'We're going to keep it and that's it.' "

For Boytner and Dodd, much of the initial challenge was getting the two sides to talk constructively with each other. Greenberg said the initial sessions were fraught with a familiar dynamic.

"The Israeli side is accustomed to being in power and being in control, and the Palestinian side is used to demanding rights," he said. "That's the usual discourse."

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