Fighting for the History of Tel al Rumeida

The Israeli occupation uses many methods to take over land – from settlements and military camps to the nature reserve and political treaties. However, the Abu Haikal family of Tel al Rumeida in Al-Khalil (Hebron), faces a much more unexpected enemy: archaeologists. Currently, the family home is completely surrounded by an Israeli archaeological excavation – there is only one gate into the property, which can be shut at any time, leaving the family isolated from the surrounding city.

The gate to the Abu Haikal house

The gate to the Abu Haikal house.

At first glance, the presence of an archaeological site seems quite positive, or at the very least harmless, however a quick look at the politics surrounding the Tel al Rumeida excavation shows that this is far more sinister than a simple historical inquisition.

Under the Oslo Accords, the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) must coordinate all of their work in the West Bank with the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. In Tel al Rumeida, Palestinian officials have been denied entry.

IAA archaeologists – many of whom live in the surrounding illegal settlements – began digging in Tel al Rumeida on January 5th, 2014. They claimed they were looking for the graves of Jesse and Ruth, figures from the Hebrew Bible. The IAA has also stated their intent to turn the area into a ‘Biblical Archaeological Park’, depending on what the dig turns up.

While no uniquely Jewish artifacts have been found, Palestinian officials confirmed that the settler-archaeologists have destroyed several Muslim graves that were found on the site. Residents of Tel al Rumeida have reported that IAA employees are also in the process of bulldozing an ancient Canaanite retaining wall. For them, the deliberate annihilation of non-Jewish history in Hebron is anything but innocuous.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority has been a tool for settlement expansion and land grabs in the West Bank for a long time, including the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan, the town of Khirbet Susiya, and other settlements within Hebron. The strategy is simple: Archaeologists enter an area and search for signs of uniquely Jewish history. When a site or artifact is discovered – or possibly fabricated – the area is declared to be an integral part of the ‘Jewish State’. To ‘protect’ the land, a settlement is built on top of the site, driving away the Palestinian owners.

Settler archaeologists

Settler archaeologists.

The land in question belongs to several different families as well as the Islamic Waqf, a religious land endowment institution. In 1914, Mizrahi Jews living in Hebron took out a 99-year lease from the Waqf, which they in turn rented out to Palestinian families who have been farming there ever since. Because the land had been leased by Jews, Israel has claimed the Waqf land as their own. In addition, the settler-archaeologists have bulldozed land that is privately held by local Palestinians. Some families have agreed to coordinate with the IAA, while others are fighting the appropriation of their land.

As for the Abu Haikals, they will continue the struggle. IAA excavations surround their home, in land where the family once grew almond and cherry trees. When members of the family have taken action – by taking pictures to document what’s happening or calling in activists and journalists – settler archaeologists have threatened to bulldoze the ancient Abu Haikal olive trees as well. On one occasion, settlers working on the site even attacked the house with rocks, smashing several windows.

Despite all of this, the Abu Haikals are determined: they are one piece of Tel al Rumeida’s history that will not be obliterated by the Zionist occupation.

Video courtesy of Christian Peacemaker Teams