The (Mis)adventures of the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA)

The Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) has been busy these past few months. The summer of 2009 saw it team up with the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Canada to import the Dead Sea Scrolls, found between 1947 and 1956 in West Bank of Palestine. This collaboration was complicit in breaking the following international agreements and national guidelines:

UNESCO First and Second Protocols of the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954)

Convention on the Means of prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property (1970)

Canada’s Cultural Property Export and Import Act

Canadian Museums Association Ethics Guidelines

Obtained from East Jerusalem during the 1967 Six Day War, the international community has long established that the scrolls were illegally obtained through war—full stop. The ROM did not seem to have a problem with this travesty, but received a firestorm of complaint and protest from Canadian citizen groups, including Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME), which sent a delegation that met with the CEO of the museum. Shamefully, a number of Islamic, faith-based groups have advertised this exhibition, ignorant (deliberate?) of its multiple flagrancies.

Today, the IAA has teamed up with the Jerusalem Municipality and the Israeli government to okay the building of a “Center for Human Dignity-Museum of Tolerance” by the Simon Wiesenthal Center based in Los Angeles, California, USA. The problem? This purported museum of “tolerance” is planned to be built over Mamilla Cemetery, the most ancient cemetery in the whole of Palestine, with burials dating back to the 12th century and the crusades. Part of the cemetery has already been desecrated, with its graves dug out in order for a parking lot to be built on top of it. Years later, hundreds more graves must be dug out for the current museum ventures, purportedly worth up to $200 million dollars.

The head archaeologist of the museum site, Gideon Suleimani, confirmed that around 4 layers of graves must be dug out, with some already relocated to an unknown area—much to the anger of families whose ancestors’ graves have been desecrated. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of skeletons under the ground there,” noted Suleimani, who has been ignored by the IAA.

A group of families brought this case to the Israeli supreme court, only to lose (the IAA successfully kept out Suleimani’s testimony on behalf of the plaintiff families). However, the Campaign to Preserve Mamilla Jerusalem Cemetery (http://www.mamillacampaign.org/etemplate.php?id=55), a campaign made up of families, has taken the case to the United Nations, and have asked the cemetery to be protected under its UNESCO heritage site status. Furthermore, the famed Frank Gehry, chief designer of the Museum of Tolerance, pulled out due to “other commitments”. The project could also not raise the $200 million mark it had hoped for, leaving it with out a designer, and no firm plan.

This desecration and displacement of peoples and corpses is only a miserable continuation of Israel’s post-1948 policies. Whether it’s the IDF or the IAA, the same sad story abounds. At a time when the international community calls for Israel to move out of the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and at least engage in reasonable negotiations with elected Palestinian officials (ahem, Hamas), it is deplorable to observe that in ancient Palestine, not even the dead are safe.