Officials in Jerusalem are concerned that the Palestinians will make a formal approach to UNESCO demanding a return of the historic Dead Sea Scrolls, considered among Israel’s most important archaeological holdings.
During a meeting of the UN’s cultural agency last month, UNESCO officials told Eitan Klein, a deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, that the Palestinians had informally raised the issue and were likely to make an official request too.
“This is another instance of provocation and the ‘hutzpah’ of the Palestinians trying to rewrite history and erase our connection to our land,” said Israel’s envoy to the UN culture body, Carmel Shama-Hacohen.
Israel has been at loggerheads with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in recent weeks, after it passed a series of resolutions that characterized the holy sites on and around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount as exclusively Muslim.
Last month Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recalled the envoy for consultations in protest of the UNESCO resolutions.
The Palestinians were said to have raised the issue of the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP). Israel does not sit on this committee and only has observer status.
The ancient texts were found in 1947 in a series of caves at Qumran in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea by a Palestinian shepherd, an area of the West Bank that the Palestinians claim for a future state.
But Israel views the scrolls a national treasure and keeps its share of them in a secure, climate-controlled storeroom that mimics the dark, arid caves in which they were preserved for two millennia.
The scrolls, written mostly on animal skin parchment, are thought to have been written or collected by Jews who left Jerusalem for the desert in the time of the Second Temple, in the centuries before the Cmmon Era. The manuscripts are the earliest copies of the Hebrew Bible ever found, and the oldest written evidence of the roots of Judaism and Christianity in the Holy Land.
“The fragments of the scrolls are proof and a weighty archaeological evidence of the historical connection of the Jewish People to the Land of Israel,” said Shama-Hacohen on Sunday.
“In any case, just like with the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, the scrolls will stay in our hands and the Palestinians will be left with their dreams,” he said.