Hebron, the city of the forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, will again be host to an archaeological excavation at the Tel Rumeida site. On Sunday, archaeologists from Ariel University and the Israel Antiquities Authority began the dig, which is expected to last until the end of the year. The 1.5 acre site, known as Lots 52 and 53, is Jewish-owned, but the dig itself is stirring up controversy.
The city of Hebron is home to a large Palestinian population and a small Jewish one, and tensions in the area run high. Most of the Jewish residents live in the area around the Cave of the Patriarchs and in the Tel Rumeida neighborhood. Roughly 700 Jews are protected from their neighbors by some 2000 IDF soldiers.
The archaeological site in question is owned by Jews, according to the IAA, although in the past it had been farmed by the Abu Haikal family as protected Palestinian tenants. That arrangement ended during the second intifada when the family was prevented from entering the Jewish community.
Hebron is part of the area on which the Palestinians want to establish an independent state, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has reaffirmed Israel’s historic connection to the city and insists it must remain a part of Israel.
Undoubtedly due to political tensions such as these, several archaeologists approached to head the dig turned the project down.
The project itself was the brainchild of Hebron’s Jewish community, which wishes to establish an archaeological park in the area for tourists. This will be the fourth dig at the Tel Rumeida site. Earlier digs uncovered such historic treasures as five seals from the time of King Hezekiah, a tablet covered in writing that pre-dates Abraham, remains of a home from the First Temple period, and even walls dating back to the time of Noah. Archaeologists found artifacts from eras ranging from the early Bronze Age right up to the Ottoman period.
After a prolonged search, the IAA’s Emanuel Eisenberg and Ariel University’s David Ben-Shlomo agreed to lead the excavations. Eisenberg is no stranger to Tel Rumeida; he led the excavations in the late 1990’s, the last time the area was explored.
On Thursday, Hebron’s Jewish Community spokesman David Wilder wrote of the project on his Facebook page: “Fifteen years ago archeologist Emanuel Eisenberg, from the Israeli Antiquities Authority, headed excavations that led to fascinating discoveries in Tel Hebron.
“This week he returned, together with Prof. Shlomo Ben-David (sic) from Ariel University, and renewed excavations on the tel. Hopes are high for more fascinating finds, going back to the days of King David and before.”
The entire project will be funded jointly by the Culture Ministry and the Civil Administration to the tune of NIS 7 million (about $2 million US).
The project has been criticized by left-wing activists. Peace Now’s secretary general Yariv Oppenheimer told Haaretz news agency, “It’s expanding the settlement under the guise of archaeological digs. Under [US Secretary of State John] Kerry’s nose, the defense minister is allowing the settlers to expand and change the status quo in the most explosive spot in the West Bank.” Kerry is in the Middle East to broker peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
“The dig in Tel Rumeida is another case of exploiting an antiquities site for the political struggle,” said archaeologist Yoni Mizrahi of Emek Shaveh, a group of left-leaning archaeologists.
“Like the sites of Ir David and Sussia, now they’re using Hebron’s ancient site as a political means to strengthen the Israeli settlement. We cannot understand how they can dig in one of the most conflicted cities in the region and claim the dig is not political,” said Mizrahi.
Mizrahi also said to AFP, “If settlers built homes on land that used to be owned by Palestinians, they would continue to be viewed by much of the Israeli public as a group of extremists. But through creating archaeological sites, settlers can bring in tourists, representing themselves as people who are protecting the place.”
In its report, The Jewish Press questioned these objections, pointing out the implications that finding archaeological evidence of early Jewish settlement in the area would have.
For their part, neither the IAA nor the Civil Administration addressed the political tensions. The IAA said only, “The authority is working in cooperation with the archaeology officer. In the past, excavations have been carried out in Hebron, including at this site. As the leading professional archaeology institution, the authority is prepared for large-scale excavations, as required in this one.”
The Civil Administration added, “The Antiquities Authority has been carrying out rescue excavations in Tel Hebron, following the Hebron settlers’ initiative to develop an archaeological park open to the public. The administration is endeavoring as a matter of routine to protect, develop and carry out rescue digs regardless of the future of these sites and the arrangement to be carried out in the future.”