Settlers in the West Bank have secured state support to renew archaeological excavations in Tel Rumeida, a site believed to be the location of biblical Hebron which lies in the heart of the modern-day divided city.
Archaeologists from Ariel University and the Israel Antiquities Authority began excavating the site Sunday, the Haaretz daily reported on Thursday morning.
By the end of 2014, the Hebron residents hope to turn the site into a new archaeological park and tourist attraction near the Jewish settlement in the city, at a cost of NIS 7 million to be funded jointly by the Culture Ministry and the Civil Administration.
According to the report, the settlers contacted several prominent Israeli archaeologists over a period of several months in hopes that they would agree to supervise the Tel Rumeida project, but they refused.
In the end, a team of archaeologists led by Emanuel Eisenberg of the Israel Antiquities Authority and David Ben-Shlomo of Ariel University agreed to oversee the excavation work, the likes of which has not been carried out in the area since the 1990s.
Hebron, which has a large Palestinian population and a small Jewish neighborhood near the Tomb of the Patriarchs, sits at the heart of Israeli Palestinian conflict. The city is the site of frequent clashes between Jews and Palestinians and has seen a number of high-profile disputes of property ownership.
Though the Tel Rumeida site is Jewish-owned, a Palestinian family used to live on the site and till the land as protected tenants up until the Second Intifada in the early 2000s, when they were prohibited from farming, Haaretz said.
A spokesperson for the Jewish community in Hebron, Noam Arnon, told the newspaper that while the original initiative had come from the settlers, they were not involved in the excavations.
“All professional decisions will be made by the Israel Antiquities Authority,” Arnon was quoted as saying.
Left-wing organizations were quick to protest the move, which comes as tensions in the West Bank escalate daily.
“This is settlement expansion under the guise of archaeology,” Peace Now director-general Yariv Oppenheimer told Haaretz in response to the move. “Under US Secretary of State John Kerry’s nose, Defense Minister [Moshe Ya’alon] is enabling the settlers to expand and change the status quo in the most sensitive part of the West Bank.”
The Hebron-based Youth Against Settlements also charged that work was being done for a new outpost, noting that a mobile home had been placed on the site, the Palestinian Ma’an news agency reported.
The Israel Antiquities Authority did not address the political aspect of the excavation project, saying only that as Israel’s leading archaeological institution, it was equipped to carry out such a large-scale dig.
The Civil Administration, meanwhile, told Haaretz that it habitually undertakes maintenance and restoration projects in archaeological sites throughout the West Bank, “regardless of the future of these sites in any future agreement.”
The area has been the site of frequent tensions between Palestinians and Israelis.
On Thursday morning, Palestinians threw three Molotov cocktails at an Israeli bus traveling through the southern West Bank.
The incident took place near the Palestinian town of Halhul on Route 60, leading from Gush Etzion to Hebron. There were no injuries.
Over the weekend, Palestinians threw four Molotov cocktails and stones at Israeli vehicles south of Jerusalem. No injuries were reported, but damaged was inflicted to one of the cars. The incidents took place near the West Bank village of Husan, west of Bethlehem.