An Israeli archaeological excavation on Palestinian land is worrying the residents of Tel Rumeida, a hill in central Hebron and one of the oldest continuously inhabited areas in the world. With funding from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sport and a potential plan for an archaeological park, the project seems to be expanding illegal Israeli settlements and settler tourism in Hebron.
by Hebron team
When caterpillars entered the land next to their house in the early hours of January 5th of 2014, the Abu Haikal family watched with disbelief as they witnessed the uprooting of almond trees that the family had tended and harvested for decades. It was only after two hours that they learned the reason for this abrupt end to the life of their trees. Israeli authorities presented an order to clear the land for archaeological excavations.
The archeologists from Ariel University – a university located in an illegal Israeli settlement – state that they are digging for the ancient bronze and iron age city of Hevron, which lay here between 4500 and 2500 years ago. So far, David ben Shlomo says, leading the excavation, “the most remains found are from the early period, and so far actually we’ve found mostly rocks.”
When we meet Farial Abu Haikel in early February, a month after the start of the excavation, she is in a good mood. The workers did not show up that day and a glimpse of hope is on her face. Maybe the initial permit to conduct excavations was not renewed, maybe the paper work was not in order, maybe they will stop the work altogether. However, just the following week, the excavations were expanded to another patch of land that has also been worked by the Abu Haikel family and work in the initial plot was resumed.
The family has hired a lawyer and is taking the land issue to court, but the legal situation is complex to say the least.
Originally being Islamic Waqf property, the land was rented to a Jewish association during the British Mandate of Palestine. A Jewish Palestinian family, who the Abu Haikal family sheltered and protected during the massacre against the Jewish minority in Hebron in 1929, had taken care of the land. Following the establishment of Israel in 1948 the land was placed under the care of the Jordanian government, and eventually fell under the Israeli Absentee Property Law with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967. Throughout all of this, the Abu Haikel’s rented the land from the Jewish association, granting them the status of protected tenants.
Tel Rumeida – a troubled neighborhood
The hill of Tel Rumeida, on which the Abu Haikel’s house and the excavations are located, sits just above the old city of Hebron. It is home to many Palestinian families and an Israeli settlement, which houses a few very radical Jewish families, according to the Israeli counterterrorism specialist and expert in far-right Jewish groups Ehud Sprinzak.
The Palestinian residents of Tel Rumeida are all too well aware of what archeological excavations can lead to. After the first settlement was created here, with caravans parked on a small military base, the land next to it was fenced in to conduct archeological excavations. Today, on this very spot, a multi story apartment building rises, constituting the biggest part of the Tel Rumeida settlement.
Head archaeologist David ben Shlomo explains that the current excavation will be carried out for 2 or 3 more months. “But we have a permit for all of 2014.”
What happens after that, he does not know. But the land may be opened for tourism, he concedes. In order to reach the historical layers that they are looking for, the archaeologists every day bulldozer up truckloads of soil from the area. When we ask David Ben Shlomo what will happen to the soil they remove from the land he answers that he doesn’t know. “I think it is being sold, it is very good soil!”
The Palestinian residents living in the vicinity of settlements, experience heavy restrictions in their movements, livelihoods and personal lives. Tel Rumeida is off limits to Palestinian vehicles, with only settler cars being allowed to speed by. Palestinians face harassment and violence by their involuntary neighbors on a regular basis. The construction of yet another settlement on the hill is being anticipated with fear by those whose daily life will be affected by it.
We visit Ferial again. She shows us the land tended by the family and explains how the family over the years have suffered several attacks by the settlers from the Tel Rumeida settlement. She points to the trees in the part of her garden that the family still has access to, overlooking the archeological excavation.
“All of these trees, they are political. We planted them to prevent the settlers from throwing stones at us.”
Now the plots of land tended by the family have been fenced in, the trees have given way to gaping holes, and armed border police will tell anyone coming too close to the fences that the land is now off-limits.
Read more on this story on Ha’aretz.