Al-Ahram Weekly Online   3 - 9 June 2004
Issue No. 693
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

False guardians

For more than half a century Israel has tried to sanctify its existence by laying claim to Palestinian land. Nevine El-Aref tracks its newest strategy and Arab plans to abort it

Click to view caption
An Israeli border police officer stands guard in Damascus gate in Jerusalem's old city (left); a part of the Damascus gate in the wall of Jerusalem (right) and soldiers of Israeli police walking at the opencourt of the Dome of the Rock (below)

Over the last 50 years Israel has made continuous attempts to rewrite the cultural history of the Middle East. Its latest move, to be presented at the forthcoming meeting of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) scheduled for 28 June in China, is to play guardian to the region's history and environment.

Back in 2001, two years after enrolling as a member of the World Heritage Committee, Israel submitted an official request to place 28 Palestinian sites on its World Heritage list as belonging to Israel, among them the historic Arab city of Jerusalem. The move was naturally contested by Arab countries because it went against international law -- including the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and the International Convention of the Protection of International Cultural and Natural Heritage of 1972. Israel nevertheless succeeded in registering three areas as its own: the old city of Acre, the Bow Houses in Tel- Aviv, and the Roman fortress at Masada. Two further attempts will now be made. One concerns the countries that fall within the Great Rift Valley (GRV), and the other Jerusalem.

"Bridging the Rift" is the title of the first proposal that Israel will put forward, and for which it is seeking UNESCO's seal of approval. This involves dragging the 7,000 km-long Great Rift Valley (GRV), which stretches from East Africa, through the Red Sea, the Gulfs of Suez and Aqaba and along the Lebanese-Dead Sea Rift into a "unique geomorphologic mega-trans- boundary-unit" on the World Heritage List (WHL). That is to say, to group together -- regardless of political boundaries, environmental diversity or the historical pertinence -- a vast slice of Africa and the Middle East, including the countries of the Nile Basin, and treat them as a single component.

The second proposal -- in which Israel appears to have a hand -- concerns an archaeological report on the old city of Jerusalem that was based on a UNESCO inspection mission undertaken last February to verify, in situ, the actual condition of its historical monuments. It calls, in effect, for the removal of Jerusalem from the World Heritage List in Danger (WHLD).

To try to abort these ploys, scholars and heads of antiquities departments from 16 Arab countries gathered in Cairo last month at the Arab League headquarters. Among the attendees were representatives of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation (ALECSO), the Egyptian National Commission for UNESCO and the Islamic Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO). Representatives at the two-day seminar, entitled "Cairo Statement for Preserving the Arab Cultural and Environmental Heritage", unanimously approved a plan to counter the Israeli scheme for Jerusalem, to reject the Great Rift Valley (GRV) project, and to lobby for international backing from other UNESCO and WHC members against Israel's cultural and environmental targets.

The Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) Secretary-General Zahi Hawass totally rejected Israel's GRV project, describing it as "an Israeli attempt to hack into both the cultural and the environmental heritage of Arab countries".

Other senior officials were quick to agree. "Although we appreciate and support any project aimed at protecting and preserving the region's environmental and archaeological heritage because that is our duty, we are totally against this project, the suspicious aims of which are concealed by sublime objectives," said an impassioned Hawass, adding that the GRV project was one of a kind. "How can Israel play guardian and protector of the environment while its workers are uprooting countless olive and orange trees to build the Separation Wall, and its Dymouna nuclear reactor is leaking some of its nuclear acid into the Naqb desert south of Israel?" he asked.

According to a report by a preliminary meeting of experts held in Ain Gedi in Israel in October 2002, of which Al- Ahram Weekly obtained a copy: "Experts encourage the 22 countries situated along the Rift to submit a serial trans- boundary nomination for their sites to be included in the WHL on the basis of their relation to the GRV." The report clarified that: "The nominations may be on the basis of various factors including geology, on-going rift related processes, biological diversity and migrations, the descent of Man, the advancement of civilisations and typical rift-related landscapes." Establishing and strengthening partnerships among the concerned states was one of the report's recommendations.

For his part Michael Turner, chairman of the Israeli WHC, stressed in his paper that the great value of world heritage sites was connected to highlighting locations of universal importance and their preservation for future generations. The suggested GRV world heritage concept, he wrote, was to widen the approach, thereby adding to the interest and meaning of individual sites. As a pioneering project "it may open the way to further multinational sites," he said.

Abdel-Samei Abu Deya, head of the Jordanian museums department, told the Weekly that the GRV project did not have so innocent a target as first appeared. He claimed that it aimed at sharing the Arab and African countries, including the countries of the Nile Basin, in their water resources.

"Through the scheduled trans- boundary, mutual cooperation will be applied among the states concerned which, in turn, will provide the opportunity to ask for a portion of the Nile water like other counterparts," Abu Deya told the Weekly. He said that if a debate arose among African countries, Israel would determine a fee for the water in order to secure a large share.

"I am afraid that water pricing could be a new policy to be established in the region," he added.

Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, Egypt's representative at the UNESCO meetings, strongly supported Abu Deya's view and wondered if Israel could implement such a project when it had no cultural or diplomatic ties with eight out of the nine Arab countries concerned. "Israel's aims are to lay claim to the Nile sources," he said.

To abort their attempt Abdel-Maqsoud suggested the implementation of an alternative project aimed at studying the cultural and environmental biological diversity of the GRV, and the advance of civilisations and people who had lived on the edge of the Nile through the ages. This, he suggested, would be more beneficial, especially in view of the fact that the major part of the Rift Valley lay in Africa.

The Arab document called on Arab participants in the forthcoming WHC session to refrain from discussing the Jerusalem report until UNESCO had provided and distributed copies of it. This was in order that they might be well informed of what would be on the agenda in advance of the June session. Until last April no such information had been circulated among the mission's members, and it seems UNESCO's Arab group was intentionally kept in the dark.

Fortunately, a brief verbal statement by the head of the World Heritage Centre to UNESCO's Arab members brought the issue into the open. He said that: "Due to its current grave situation, Jerusalem had become an inappropriate world heritage site, which may cause its removal from the World Heritage List." The Arab member said, furthermore, that the report neglected to mention that Jerusalem was an occupied territory. He attributed all damage to archaeological sites and the deterioration of their human and environmental aspects to the occupant's aggressions. "Why, after two years of denying access to Israel by several UNESCO missions headed by Oleg Grabar, the prominent Princeton expert on Islamic architecture and the UN's special envoy to the region, did Israel accept to host last February's mission?" asked Rita Awad, who is responsible for ALECSO's Jerusalem File. Awad told the Weekly that UNESCO's Arab group was justified in feeling that the mission was welcomed because it "definitely" obtained a special warrantee from the international organisation -- referring to the WHC -- that the report would be in accordance with its Zionist interests.

"The absence of any Arab expert or a specialist in Islamic architecture affirms the Israeli ploy," Awad said. She went on to say that the mission's visiting programme was managed only by the Israeli archaeological department, without any of their Palestinian counterparts being invited. "The WHC also deliberately kept UNESCO's representatives of Arab countries in the dark about the mission's final report," she emphasised.

Himdan Taha, director-general of antiquities and cultural heritage in Palestine, told the Weekly : "This recent Israeli attempt to remove Jerusalem from the WHLD is a very critical move that would legitimise Israel's occupancy and sovereignty over the holy city." He went on to say that approving such an attempt would be an implicit declaration that Jerusalem was not an occupied territory which, in turn, would give Israel a free hand to desecrate its Christian and Islamic heritage and proceed with its secret digs beneath Al-Aqsa Mosque without international surveillance.

"In my opinion," Taha continued, "we will be able to nip this move in the bud because of the Arabs' full awareness of the scheme by which Israel plans to declare its patrimony and existence in the region through the ratification of its cultural identity and sovereignty, thus uprooting the Palestinian identity and confirming its settlement by listing some of the historical sites on the WHL," Taha said. He went on to relate that when Israel succeeded in listing the old city of Acre on the WHL, it had tried to move away all Palestinian inhabitants by claiming that the city was in dire need of restoration and conservation. In fact, Taha claimed, Israel wished to replace the inhabitants with Israeli settlers.

Taha said that the construction of the "Separation Wall" was another Israeli ruse to despoil the rich archaeological remains of Palestine's cultural heritage, whether discovered or still buried under the sand. Despite its having a catastrophic impact on economic and social life in Palestinian life, and in the face of aversion to its construction, it has already proceeded with its first and second phases, demolishing the historical landscape and separating hundreds of archaeological and cultural heritage sites.

To mention but a few, Taha pointed out that the wall had destroyed archaeological sites located between the village of Zebuba, north of Jenin, and Qalqiliya to the south, while hundreds of archaeological sites and historical features were included within the closed area. During the first phase of the building of the wall bordering the West Bank, from the west, about 60 major sites were restricted in the enclosed area, and with full extension of the wall to the southwest of Hebron about 230 more major archaeological sites and tells will be cut, not to mention 1,750 minor cultural heritage features such as caves, wells, cisterns, tombs, cemeteries, sanctuaries, agricultural installations, towers, wine presses, lime- kilns and sacred trees. Taha stressed that the most significant sites had been included inside the wall, among them the natural forest of Umm Al-Rihan south of Jenin. "An apt example of archaeological sites detached from their setting is Tell Al-Dahab, which has been separated from the village of Zebuba", Taha said, adding that the whole area west of Ramallah would be inside the wall and consequently more than 500 archaeological sites would be within the Israeli area.

Contrary to accepted international standards in archaeological excavations, irreversible damage will be done to historical sites as a result of building the wall. Taha said the salvage operation organised in Tell Salah around Jerusalem evoked images of the 19th-century treasure hunt excavations, in which hundreds of workers with no scientific knowledge and without professional control dug indiscriminately. Not enough time was given to archaeologists to finalise their work, and after a mere three weeks the sites were levelled and the wall was built on top of it. Yet during this brief time, the remains of a Byzantine monastery was unearthed, including a church, outdoor rooms, courtyards, a well, residential areas and stables. Under the central courtyard, Taha declared, the remains of a crypt decorated with crosses was found; in the central area a mosaic pavement was uncovered, decorated with geometrical and animal designs including a deer. "This mosaic pavement was removed illegally from its archaeological context," Taha said, stressing repeatedly that the building of a Separation Wall was in violation of the international antiquities law, an archaeological protocol signed in the Oslo agreement. "Israel cannot long play guardian of history and historical sites while destroying it in Palestine," he concluded.

Ali Radwan, head of the General Union for Arab Archaeologists, had this to say: "To support our argument in front of the globe, we Arabs must document all archaeological and environmental damage and loss carried out by Israel in the occupied territories, and publish the results in international newspapers as well as on the Internet. It should be seen by the whole world community."

Artefacts looted during the so-called Liberation War in Iraq, and monuments such as those in the occupied Golan Heights in Syria, were among other issues on the Arab agenda. They called on international museums to help in returning Iraq's looted artefacts and declared that, in the event that any museum helped in the buying, selling and smuggling of Iraqi objects, Arab countries would sever scientific ties and cooperation.

During their meeting last month, Arab archaeologists called on the Arab League to request all members of the WHC, as well as the UNESCO director-general, to apply international law and activate measures to protect the Arab heritage whether in Jerusalem, Golan or Iraq.

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