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Israeli bill to shift control of Judea and Samaria archaeological sites to civil authority sparks controversy

Move consolidates Israeli civilian administration over the area

Israelis visit Herodium National Park in Judea and Samaria, on January 9, 2023. (Photo: Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

The Israeli Knesset intends to pass a bill that would transfer the administration of antiquities and archaeological sites in Judea and Samaria from the IDF to the jurisdiction of the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA), Israeli media reported on Monday.

The move is potentially controversial as it represents a further consolidation of Israeli civilian administration over the area, viewed by some as a step toward a future de facto Israeli annexation of the disputed territories.

The regions of Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank, have been divided into three zones (A, B, and C) since the Oslo Accords 1993. They are currently administered under a chaotic and complex division by both Palestinian and Israeli administrations.

Area C, the largest territory, is primarily administered by Israel through the IDF's Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) but suffers from a lack of supervision and enforcement of legislation.

The disputed area is known as the heart of the biblical Israelite and Judean territory, containing most of the ancient Jewish archaeological and holy sites. However, many in the international community consider this region to be "occupied territory" by Israel.

In an ironic twist of history, Judea and Samaria, which were once inhabited by the ancient Israelites during the biblical period, are today settled by a majority of the Palestinian non-Jewish population hostile to the idea of a Jewish presence in the Holy Land.

On the other hand, the region of the coastal plain of modern Israel, which was primarily Canaanite, Philistine, and inhabited by Gentiles during biblical times, is today almost exclusively inhabited by Israeli Jews.

Israelis visit the site of the ancient village of Sebastia near the West Bank city of Nablus, April 22, 2019. (Photo: Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

The request to transfer the administration of archaeological sites, particularly those with a direct connection to Jewish heritage, from military control to Israeli civilian management stems from a concerning reason: The looting and systematic destruction of these significant historical sites by Palestinians.

This destruction has been documented and known for years. Sites like Sebastia and Umm ar-Rihan have recently been vandalized, but many others have also suffered damage as there has been ongoing, systematic looting and destruction of archaeology in Judea and Samaria.

Israeli officials have described the destruction as a national catastrophe and a major threat to Jewish heritage in the Holy Land.

Some attempts to save world history heritage sites and Jewish heritage sites have been made in Judea and Samaria recently. One example is Israel's official declaration proclaiming 42 acres surrounding the ancient Herodium National Park as state land.

Israelis visit the site of Herodium in Judea and Samaria, January 9, 2023.(Photo: Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Direct civilian Israeli control could help to better preserve the Jewish heritage in these controversial territories, with some claiming the situation in Judea and Samaria is a vacuum that leads to catastrophic results, including a lack of preservation of important sites.

Currently, the management and preservation of archaeological sites in the area are handled by an archaeology unit within the Civil Administration, Israel’s governing body led by the military authority. This small office is struggling to control the situation on the ground.

The new bill, introduced by Knesset Member Amit Halevi from the Likud party, intends to transfer these responsibilities to the official control of the IAA. Halevi argued that the historical artifacts found in Judea and Samaria “have no historical or other connection to the Palestinian Authority.”

Proponents of the bill believe Israel should protect its national, historic, and religious heritage in Judea and Samaria the same way, and through the same institution, as in the internationally recognized territories within the State of Israel.

Conversely, some Israeli security officials argue that the army should maintain control through the Civil Administration, emphasizing the complexity of introducing a civilian body into these problematic territories.

International pressure could also prevent the bill from passing. An anonymous defense source told the Times of Israel: “The army, through the Civil Administration, retains control over Judea and Samaria, and it should continue to be this way.”

The IAA, however, has refrained from commenting on the Israeli committee’s decision, noting the uncertainty of the bill’s confirmation. The potential new law would allow the IAA to implement its standards in Judea and Samaria as it does within Israel proper, potentially increasing accusations that the Israeli government is pushing toward creeping annexation without international consensus or recognition.

Bezalel Smotrich plants a tree outside a Conference of the 'Besheva' group in Kedem, in Judea and Samaria, Sept. 5, 2019. (Photo: Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

Right-wing politicians, such as Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, have long advocated for the expansion of the IAA’s presence. This aligns with Smotrich's agenda of thwarting the recognition of a Palestinian state by transferring control over the area from military to civilian hands.

Two years ago, the Civil Administration permitted IAA supervisors to operate in the territory. At that time, IAA Director Eli Escusido assured that the agency did not intend to assume responsibility for Judea and Samaria and aimed to help only the existing archaeology staff officer within the Civil Administration led by the IDF.

Smotrich recently played a crucial role in a significant restructuring within the Civil Administration, leading to the transfer of specific military powers in Judea and Samaria to a civilian Israeli administrator under the Ministry of Defense.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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