Digging the Occupation: The Politics of Boycotts and Archeology in Israel (BDS pt. 3)

Recently, the television network NBC started filming Dig, a new archeology drama set in Jerusalem. Normally, we’d be ecstatic to see our fellow archaeologists getting such media fanfare. But there is nothing normal about this venture. Filmed on-site in illegally annexed East Jerusalem, the show is underwritten by 6.5 million dollar grant from the Israeli government. For comparisons sake, this means Israel is spending more to film Dig than on the yearly education budget for all K-12 Palestinian schools.

So why is the Israeli government, currently in the midst of a budget crisis, throwing millions at NBC to get Dig on the air? Because they know something we’ve been reluctant to own up to: archeological knowledge remains one of the Israeli state’s most powerful weapons. If Dig unearths anything, it is that in Israel archeology is neither a neutral nor innocent enterprise. Instead, it has become just one more tool in the occupation of Palestinian lands.

As anthropologists and archeologists, we should be especially concerned when we see our discipline being misused to promote discrimination and occupation. By endorsing Palestinians’ call for BDS, the AAA has a unique opportunity to highlight the misappropriation of our scholarly techniques and defend the good name of our profession.

Israeli Archeology’s Present and Future: Justifying Land Expropriation and Settlement Expansion

NBC’s Dig is filmed on location in the illegally annexed Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, situated just outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Since 1967, Silwan has become a keystone of Israeli policies to exert control, expropriate land, and legitimize its occupation of the eastern parts of the city. In this ongoing effort, archeology is the state’s handmaiden.

In the 1990s, the state outsourced control of the neighborhood’s archaeological sites to Elad, a right-wing settler organization whose goals include: “settling families in the City of David and developing the site as a Jewish neighborhood.”

The way Elad, state archeologists, and the municipality collaborate to advance the goal of “unifying Jerusalem” is illustrative of the problematic implementation of archeology in Israel more broadly. As a private entity, Elad has gotten away with using shady tactics, discriminatory laws, and even outright fraud to expel Palestinian residents of the village and replace them with Jewish settlers. Despite the organization’s record of illegal activities, the Israeli Antiquities Authority continues to outsource the management of major archaeological sites in occupied East Jerusalem to Elad.

Elad has taken full advantage of its new-found power to orchestrate themassive transfer of archeologically-rich public lands to its jurisdiction. And whereas new Israeli settlement construction in East Jerusalem almost always elicits international rebuke, land expropriation carried out under the facade of “scientific inquiry” mostly goes unnoticed.

Predictably, Elad’s archaeological digs work to further its goals of displacing the occupied village’s Palestinian population and increasing its Jewish character.  One of its first projects was the excavation of the Spring House, which resulted in the village springs being closed to Palestinian residents, even as Elad facilitated water-access for Silwan’s new Jewish settlers. Since then, Elad has been continuously expanding the scope of its settler project under the guise of “archeological fact-finding.” What begins as archaeological projects often ends in the construction of illegal settlement housing for the exclusive use of Jewish Israelis. In the words of Jawad Siyam, a 39-year old resident of Silwan, whose grandmother’s home was among the first to be seized:

The settlers began by taking over homes around the site…Then they were given the main excavation site, and built new homes in the park. And now they are finding new sites, fencing off more land and digging under our houses.

The most recent project seeks to establish a seven-story museum on top of an archaeological site at the entrance to the village, despite the damage it will likely cause to ongoing archaeological excavations. Archaeological findings will be used to draw in international tourists, most of whom will never even realize that they are unwittingly contributing with their feet and wallets to illegal settlement activity in the village.

Here, as in other parts of the occupied West Bank, archaeological digs serve to create “facts on the grounds,” ultimately aiding and abetting the displacement of residents from this occupied Palestinian neighborhood, while opening the door for more settlement growth in East Jerusalem.


Occupied Archeology

The close ties between the occupation and archaeology can also affect the ability of academics to carry out their research. When archaeological inquiry and political agendas have come in conflict, the latter have won out.

After all, it’s hard to prioritize matters of scientific concerns when you’re carrying out ideological missions. Hence, in 2011, when excavations uncovered a Byzantine-era pit, Elad was quick to announce that they had just found the prophet Jeremiah’s pit. This, despite Prof. Ronny Reich of the Israeli Antiquities Authority calling the claim “nonsense.” Lacking any archaeological evidence, Elad nevertheless proceeded to turn the pit into a mainstay of their tours of the area. So too the details of the archeological record: in order to make “Jeremiah’s Pit” more attractive to tour groups, Elad built up a special events hall on the site, demolishing one of the its walls before it has could be properly excavated.

In other more egregious cases, Elad has gone so far as to destroy Muslim artifacts and remnants, even recklessly throwing out Islamic-era skeletons. In these cases, the organization appears to value its mission of “developing the site as a Jewish neighborhood” over and above its commitment to a faithful archaeological record. Needless to say, such practices contravene archeological codes of ethics concerning “equitable partnerships” with indigenous populations, as stipulated by the World Archeological Congress.1 Unfortunately, valuable historical information is not the only or even the most direct causality of the poor archaeological methods promoted by Elad. The organization has also pioneered strategies designed to use archaeology to further the removal of Palestinian residents of the village and extend Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

Israel’s Tunnel-Vision: Burrowing Past Palestinian Homes

In East Jerusalem, archeology is not merely a pretext for land expropriation. It is also provides a tactic and mechanism for making Palestinian homes uninhabitable.

In most parts of the world, the archaeological method of burrowing horizontal tunnels underground has long been considered invalid. The practice fell into disuse nearly a hundred years ago, when it was replaced by the stratigraphic method of digging using vertical columns. Except for in Israel, where archaeologists are reverting back to the practice of excavating lateral tunnels, in the process causing massive structural damage to densely-populated Palestinian neighborhoods, housing, and roads in East Jerusalem.

By prioritizing what lies beneath the surface, the scientifically-dubious horizontal tunnel system works to (quite literally) underminePalestinian infrastructure. Ground-level subsidence caused by these out-dated archaeological methods has become so frequent that nearly every house in Silwan now displays visible cracks. In 2009, the collapse of one tunnel caused a Palestinian girls school to give way, injuring 17 children in the process. Months later later, a break in a different section of the same site led to the collapse of a mosque parking lot, leaving behind a large crater. And a similar cave-in near a kindergarten produced a 4-meter deep pit that has yet to be fully repaired.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem municipality has stepped in to declare various sites undermined by the excavations unsafe, providing them with the perfect excuse for demolishing more Palestinian infrastructure in East Jerusalem. In September, after surveying some of the recently weakened structures in the al-Qirmi neighborhood, the city proceeded to issue 20 new eviction orders. In this case, archeology works not only as an ideological tool, but also, in the hands of Elad, as an instrument of dispossession.

When asked about the potential danger posed to Silwan’s residents by the use of tunneling, the founder of the settler-archeology group Elad freely admitted that the dig will threaten Palestinian homes:

As Yonathan Mizrahi, an archaeologist who use to work for the Israeli Antiquities Authority noted:  “They want to use archaeology, even bogus archaeology, to provide cover for their political agenda of pushing Silwan’s Palestinians out.”

Silwan: A Microcosm of Israeli Archaeology

Unfortunately, the experience of Silwan is exemplary, rather than exceptional, of the uses and abuses of archaeology by the Israeli state. Many villages in the region have been continuously inhabited for centuries or even millennia. As a result, most anywhere in the region can reasonably be described as sitting atop a site of at least some archaeological significance. Rather than use this to enrich our understanding of the region, however, both the Israeli state and settler groups have cynically used this rich historical legacy to further its occupation. In effect, archaeology has become another military strategy.

This is not a particularly new phenomenon. As the renowned anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj documents in her book, Facts on the Ground, archaeological practices were integral to early Zionist efforts to colonize Palestine even before 1948. The sorts of selective and at times unsustainable historical myths that were so integral to the fashioning of early Zionist identity continue apace in the ways Elad (mis)represents the archaeological record. More directly, she also shows how the post-1967 demolition of the Old City’s Moroccan Quarter quite literally paved the way for further dispossession dressed-up as archaeological exploration (Chapter 7).

However, in recent years these long-standing tactics have been intensified as Israel seeks to fundamentally remake the landscape of Palestine/Israel in the wake of the failure of the Oslo peace talks.

While Elad’s work in Silwan is perhaps the most dramatic example, it is far from unique. From declaring “archaeological zones” that are up to 20-times larger in area than the actual dig site to demolishing even temporary structures, and from evicting residents to rejecting locally developed alternatives for preservation of sites, archaeological projects are increasingly being used by the Israeli state to violently remake the demographics of the region. As the Israeli archaeological NGO Emek Shaveh has argued, many of these projects seem to stem “from the desire to create a contiguous Israeli area that will be almost entirely free of Palestinians; the eviction of village residents will ease the future annexation of the area to Israel.”

As one might suspect given the region’s historical import, Palestine/Israel contains some of the most important archaeological research sites in the world. Unfortunately, these projects are increasingly being driven by political, rather than scientific, demands. The result threatens to tarnish the good name of our discipline and implicate us in the occupation of Palestinian lands.


The AAA has a history of defending the discipline from those who would misuse it for their own ends. Most recently, the American Anthropological Association protested the show American Diggers. According to the letter sent to SpikeTV by the AAA: “The program will undermine critical public support for the protection, preservation, and interpretation of the archaeological record.” In Palestine/Israel, the status of archaeology as an academic enterprise faces similar threats. The use of archaeological projects to displace Palestinians, expand settlements, and promote a narrow ideological agenda threaten to turn this pursuit of historical knowledge into another tool of occupation and discrimination.

The AAA has a duty to continue defending the reputation of the discipline, especially at a moment when an American television station is seeking to collaborate such a discriminatory project. Endorsing a united Palestinian civil society’s call for BDS sends a strong message. This message is directed first and foremost at the cynical misuses of our discipline’s techniques by the Israeli government. But it is also a clear directive to corporations like NBC who would seek to make a quick buck on the dispossession of Palestinian lands. As we demonstrated in our recent commentary on American Diggers, this is one area where the AAA’s voice has a very large impact.

Maintaining the organization’s tradition of defending ethical uses of anthropology is just one of the ways that an academic boycott would uphold the best traditions of the AAA. Next time, we will take a closer look at the history of the organization to see the ways that a BDS endorsement fits in with our organizational history.

  1. As with many other facets of the occupation, these misuses of archaeology to further the occupation of Palestinian territories is enabled by academics from Tel Aviv and Hebrew University. For more extensive examples and analysis of academic collaboration and complicity in the occupation, see our previous post
Isaiah Silver

Isaiah Silver is a pseudonym for two AAA members and Ph.D. candidates in anthropology in Chicago. Both writers have lived and worked in Palestine and Israel on and off for over a decade.

14 thoughts on “Digging the Occupation: The Politics of Boycotts and Archeology in Israel (BDS pt. 3)

  1. Closer to modern times, Israeli geographer Menashe Harel relates that in the mid-1850s, the villagers of Silwan were paid £100 annually by Jerusalem’s Jews in an effort to prevent the desecration of nearby graves on the Mount of Olives.[30] This fraught relationship between the two communities took a new turn late in the century with the arrival of Yemenite Jews into the town. Inspired by a messianic desire to return to the land of their forefathers, between 1881 and 1882, a group of penniless Yemenite Jews came to Jerusalem. The long-time Jewish inhabitants of the city initially rejected their coreligionists but eventually built homes for them in the Silwan area, creating a neighborhood that became known as Kfar Hashiloah (Shiloah Village) and the “Yemenite Village.”[31]

    During the pogroms of 1921 and 1929, these homes were attacked by Arab neighbors, and in 1939, at the end of the three-year Great Revolt against the British mandatory authorities, the Yemenite Jews of Silwan were evacuated, their homes soon occupied without compensation by the neighboring villagers. Thus, both the area of the City of David and the neighboring town of Silwan had no Jewish residents until 1967.

  2. Illegally annexed? Based on what law are you referring to? East Jerusalem was non-sovereign territory before Israel annexed it, and therefore it was a perfectly legal annexation.

  3. Israel from river to sea is the indigenous land of the Jewish people. We know it, you know it, and history/archaeology proves it. Claiming that Israel is occupying Arab land is an insult to the readers’ intelligence (especially archaeologists) and a flagrant double-standard that isn’t applied to any other indigenous people on Earth. For Arabs, this is a land of conquest, for Jews it is their home. Palestine is a colonial name for the territory coined by the Roman empire, Israel is the indigenous name. Calling Jews occupiers in the land of Israel would be comical if it weren’t so malicious.

  4. @Jake: The annexation of East Jerusalem by Israel is illegal under international law, as reaffirmed by UN Security Resolutions 476, 465, 298, 271, 267, and 252. For this reason, no country in the world recognizes Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem.

  5. @Isaiah: Those UN resolutions are not law. The annexation of East Jerusalem was perfectly legal, as the territory was not legally possessed by a sovereign entity prior to Israel’s annexation. Jordan had previously occupied it and has since relinquished its claims.

  6. @Jake Well, this is some bizarre legal reasoning. When it comes to judging this matter, we prefer to go with the opinion of pretty much every single legal expert, country, and international body: Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem contravenes international law. If our fellow anthropologists care to research the legal issues more, we feel confident that they will reach a similar conclusion, regardless of their opinions on the region. For now, we prefer to focus on the actual topic at hand of how our discipline is being mobilized to enable the occupation.

  7. Yes, well you are erroneously referring to East Jerusalem as “occupied” when it is on in fact legally part of Israel, so it is relevant. There are many well known legal scholars who refute the malicious and baseless claim that the annexation of East Jerusalem was illegal. Eugene Rostow is the most prominent.

  8. @Jake: Eugene Rostrow believes there is no occupied Palestinian territory at all. This is a fringe legal theory. It has roughly the same amount of support as climate scientists who believe global warming doesn’t exist. We are happy to debate substance of any of the points we make, but this is just not a reality-based argument at the moment. The legal status of Israel’s belligerent military occupation is also not the most relevant issue that we raise in this post.

  9. As Jake shows, making up “facts on the ground” also carries over to just plain making up facts. Thanks for sharing, Jake!

  10. It is not a fringe theory, it is reality. “Occupation” in international law refers to a foreign presence in the sovereign territory of another state. Israel is occupying non-sovereign disputed territory, therefore it is not considered “Occupied” in the legal sense. If it were, Israel would have been prosecuted for unlawful occupation 40 years ago.

  11. Wow. Not even the Israeli government believes this line, Jake. Congratulations: you are officially far to the right of even the Israeli government. Points to you.

  12. Of course the Israeli government believes this, which is why they continue building towns & infrastructure in the disputed territory. The Israeli supreme court uses the law of occupation as a basis for its rulings in the territory because there is no other set of rules to follow (occupation of non-sovereign territory is a unique case). If Israel were to extend full sovereignty over the territory and grant the inhabitants Israeli citizenship, the supreme court would uphold the decision, just as it did with Greater Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, because it would be 100% legal.

  13. Israel was given to Zioniats as “the Sudetenland” was given to Germany. Terms of law are an afterthought. All of Palestine is occupied. And it will remain so. Even the recent Russian immigrants aren’t leaving. The question is whether the native inhabitants will be granted equal rights on their own land. Until then it’s enough to accept that the wish for “A Jewish state for a Jewish people” is te logical and moral equivalent, approximately at least given immigration of a German or French state for ethnic Germans or French. Zionism is Garveyisn for Jews, and illiberal by definition. Amazing at this point how many people hide from the obvious.
    I could go on about the origins of Hamas as fostered by Israel to undermine Fatah, but it’s not a secret, at least in Israel. At the moment disgust is the best I can muster. 1000s of Palestinian children without one Israeli child casualty and three Israeli dead now brings a storm.

    The Palestinians are as much as not Jewish converts to Islam. And now Jewish conquerors call themselves white and see themselves as European. They identify with those who drove their families to the ovens. Fascism begins in self hatred. What else is there to say?

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