Digging up excuses for wall construction


Residents say that Zabuba village, nestled into the northernmost knob of the West Bank and snug up against the Green Line, has been inhabited for some 4,000 years. The surrounding hills are dotted with the remains of past civilizations, and excavations have revealed ancient population centers at nearby Megiddo and Tel Al Dhahab. Within Zabuba’s limits, an archeological dig is now unearthing evidence that may back the villagers’ claims.

But the remains of stone rooms and walls are not the only items being dug out of Zabuba’s fertile ground. Almond and olive trees have been uprooted a few steps from the excavation, clearing the path for the extension of Israel’s “separation wall.” When construction is complete, Zabuba will be indefinitely cut off from these artifacts – adding insult to injury after a history of accumulated dispossession. The Israeli government claims that protection of archeological sites along the Green Line requires building the wall deeper into Palestinian land.

“They’ve taken our land and our artifacts. It’s our heritage, and they’ve stolen it,” says Muhammad Jaradat, head of Zabuba’s village council and owner of the land where these artifacts lay. He accuses the Israeli archeologists excavating the site of looting the ancient ruins. Whether his claim is true or not, the entire site will soon be taken from under his nose – when the wall is constructed between the excavation mound and his remaining almond trees.

Jaradat describes the confiscation of these artifacts and the land they lie in as the latest installment in the expropriation of Zabuba’s territory. The village lost thousands of dunams of land in the Israel-Jordan Armistice Agreement of 1949, shortly after the State of Israel was established. A decade later, another 2,000 dunams were shaved off to Israel’s benefit, and a few more were confiscated when the Salem military camp was built in 1987, Jaradat explains. Then in 1999, the Israeli authorities dug a ditch and set up a green metal railing along a road marking the Green Line, taking up another 31 dunams. It was at this time that the Israeli builders stumbled upon the remains of ancient infrastructure, Jaradat tells.

“When they dug that trench and put the metal railing up I figured, this is it, this is as far as they’ll go. We were completely taken by surprise,” he says, when villagers learnt of further land confiscation to make way for the wall. “I went crazy, if you want the truth,” Jaradat says of his discovery that Israeli confiscation maps had been left on his land, held in place with stones.

At this point, a team of 50 Israeli archaeologists returned to the site, and dug six neat squares into the rich brown earth, revealing curvaceous stone foundations and broken pottery shards. “It was an opportunity for them to search for antiquities, with the excuse of the security wall,” Jaradat says.

In late 2002, the Israeli official in charge of planning the separation wall’s route testified in court that changes may be required in the wall’s course for various reasons, including “archeological factors.” Indeed, the Israeli administration has found at least ten archeological sites under the wall’s proposed route, says researcher Yehezkel Lein of the human rights organization B’Tselem. Israel has responded to this challenge in three ways, he explains.

In some cases, excavations have been expedited to uncover artifacts before construction begins. In other situations, a thick layer of earth has been laid over the artifacts to protect them during construction. And finally, the wall’s route has been changed to avoid the buried artifacts, instead digging further into West Bank territory and subsuming more Palestinian land.

This is what happened in Shweiki village, north of Tulkarem, tells local Suheil Salman. Villagers raised a case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, demanding that the wall be pushed back to the 1967 border along the Green Line. A few homes were to be cut off to the west of the wall’s proposed path, and the villagers made their case on humanitarian grounds, Salman explains.

But the State of Israel responded that a Pharaonic village had been discovered on the land, claiming that construction could therefore not be pushed back to the Green Line. Instead, the government suggested building the wall just west of these homes, only six meters away, and cutting them off from their land. Villagers can’t decide which of these bad choices is worse.

A similar argument was made in the village of Qaffin, north of Shweiki. Members of Kibbutz Metzer, just across the Green Line from the village, petitioned the Israeli Ministry of Defense to push the wall back to the 1967 border to avoid cutting villagers off from their land, Lein tells. The ministry appeared ready to accept the proposal, but then reneged, claiming that due to the presence of antiquities and insufficient time to excavate them, the wall would have to remain east of Qaffin’s cultivated fields.

It seems as though the argument of protecting ancient sites could be used repeatedly to justify moving the wall deeper into Palestinian land. There are over 100 major archeological sites in the area between Zabuba and Shweiki, says Director of the Palestinian Antiquities Department Hamdan Taha. The artifacts in this area date from the Bronze Age to the Ottoman period, and include ancient dwellings and population centers, as well as individual items including caves, tombs, rural castles and agricultural equipment such as grape presses and farm roads.

The Antiquities Department has warned of the dangers the separation wall poses to the regions’ heritage, through destruction and theft, as well as by cutting archeological sites off from the West Bank, Taha says. “The wall is an attempt to create a reality and to annex Palestinian land, including archeological sites,” he asserts. Moreover, the destruction of these archeological sites violates international law, he adds.

So does exploiting the presence of ancient artifacts to commit human rights violations, asserts Lein. “There is no authorization in international law to infringe upon human rights, such as the freedom of movement, because of archeological sites,” he says. “They should take measures to prevent hurting these sites, but this doesn’t mean that they can isolate thousands of people in doing so.”