The area comprised of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories is rich with archeological sites. More than 3,300 archeological sites have been identified in the Palestinian Authority areas alone. Israel lists thousands more.
Among the earliest prehistoric sites in the occupied West Bank is the Wadi Kheritun caves, south of Bethlehem, which dates to the Paleolithic era. Tel al-Sultan in Jericho is renowned as the earliest urban centre in the world. Farming villages spread out over nearby fertile lands, especially Marj Ibn Amir in al-Ghor, near Jericho, and Wadi Ghazza.
Several cities that developed in the early Bronze Age endured through later periods and are still populated today. Among such urban centers were Tel et Tel, Tel al-Faraa, Tel Balama, Tel Taannik, Tel Balatah, Tel al-Ajjul, Tel al-Sakan, and Jerusalem.
Modern interest in the archeology of historic Palestine started in 1865 with the Jerusalem excavations of French archeologist Louis Felicien de Saulcy. Various international expeditions continued this research, but less attention was paid to local Palestinian communities. The British mandate’s Palestinian Department of Antiquities was established in 1923. It organized archeological work and facilitated international expeditions.
After 1948, the West Bank was annexed to Jordan, and Gaza was put under Egyptian military rule. Around 21 major archaeological excavations took place in the West Bank during that time, but none were undertaken in Gaza.
After 1967, most international archeologists stopped conducting fieldwork in the West Bank and Gaza, following the Hague Convention of 1954 (see ICRC in sources), which restricts archeological excavations in occupied territories. Responsibility for antiquities fell under the jurisdiction of an Israeli military officer. Later on, his office was taken over by the Israel Department of Antiquities (latter renamed the Israel Antiquities Authority). Control of archeology in the West Bank was taken over by the staff officer for archaeology in the Civil Administration of Judea and Samaria.
Israel surveyed the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip after 1967. Israeli institutions undertook over 16 major research projects and an unknown number of salvage excavations (recent Israeli estimates claim at least 900). These include the sites of Jerusalem (mainly in the Silwan area), Seilun (Shilo), Khirbet el-Burnat (Mount Ebal), Jabal Faradis (Herodium) and Tlul Abu Alayiq (Herod’s winter palaces), Qumran, Fasael and Wadi Baker (Netiv Hagdud) and Deir al-Balah.
THE PA ERA
A new Palestinian Department of Antiquities was established by the Palestinian Authority or PA in 1994, according to the Oslo agreement between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel. The division of the West Bank into areas A, B and C established a geographic division of archeological sites (the PA was to have full control only in “A” areas – mainly urban centers such as Ramallah and Jericho). Under Oslo, the Palestinian Authority has no power in areas designated “C” – which are under full Israeli control. This left C areas open to severe looting.
Despite the Oslo agreement, Israeli authorities continued archeological excavations in the West Bank, especially as it erected the Wall, the series of cement walls, fences and crossing points Israel is constructing in the West Bank. Other research projects continue at Er Ras (Mount Girizim, the site near Nablus still populated by the ancient Samaritan sect of Judaism), Qumran (near the Dead Sea) and Jabel Fradis. The northern part of the West Bank (which Israelis refer to as "Samaria") and these two latter sites are now designated as national parks by the Israeli parks authority, despite their geographical location outside of the internationally-recognized 1967 Israeli borders.
Otherwise, excavation permits are obtained from the Palestinian Authority Department of Antiquities. The department has conducted about 500 excavations since its establishment, mainly salvage operations. Of these, 16 were key research and training projects.
Among the major Palestinian-administered sites are Tel Es Esakan, Tel Ajjul, Anthedon in al-Bilakhiya, Tel Um al-Amr, al-Moghraqa, Gaza, Belamah, Tel al-Sultan, Tel al-Mafjer, Taiba (al-Khader church), Shuwiekah, Tel Sufer, Tel Taannak, Tel Jenin, Birzeit and Saya.
Illicit excavation is the main threat to archeological sites. Many Palestinians (often the unemployed) have turned to looting as a source of income. Almost every archeological site has evidence of plundering. These stolen artifacts usually end up in the Israeli marketplace.
Many archeological treasures are disappearing due to rapid urban development. The most affected are tombs, ancient roads and sites still inside modern cities and villages. Tel et-Tel is one example.
The ongoing political conflict also threatens antiquities. More than 924 archaeological sites have been effectively annexed behind the Wall. Other Palestinian cultural heritage sites have been destroyed by Israeli military activity in Hebron, Nablus and most recently in Gaza (see sources). Tremendous losses occur every year.
In addition, Israeli antiquities officials have been accused of using the science of archeology to propagate Zionist claims to the land. These charges range from relying on the Bible as a historic record, thus establishing a controversial timeline for Jewish nationalism, to destroying non-Jewish antiquities (see Nadia el-Haj in sources).
Further, the Palestinian educational system is weak in the field of archeology. It lacks funding and trained archeological staff. Only 50 Palestinian archeologists have a graduate degree in archaeology, including 21 PhDs. Only 10 of these are in the country and the rest have found employment elsewhere.