Ministers move to expand Antiquities Authority jurisdiction into West Bank

Bill would transfer auspices over archaeological sites in the territory from a military unit to a civilian government body, strengthening claims of de facto annexation

Israelis visit the Sebastia site near Nablus on October 23, 2005. (Photo by Flash90)
Israelis visit the Sebastia site near Nablus on October 23, 2005. (Photo by Flash90)

The Ministerial Committee for Legislative Affairs approved a bill Sunday that aims to expand the powers of the Israel Antiquities Authority into the West Bank, marking a further strengthening of Israeli civilian control over the territory.

The responsibility for managing archaeological sites and preserving relics in the West Bank currently resides with the archaeology unit in the Civil Administration, Israel’s governing body in the region, which is headed by a military office.

Introduced by Likud MK Amit Halevi, the bill aims to alter this arrangement and bring in the civilian IAA to the West Bank on the basis that historical artifacts unearthed there “have no historical or other connection to the Palestinian Authority.”

“The discussion of the political status of the regions of Judea and Samaria has no relevance to Israel’s responsibility for the archaeological findings belonging to its people,” read the bill, using the biblical name for the West Bank.

A spokesperson for the IAA declined to comment on the move by the ministerial committee, saying there is a chance the bill won’t pass.

Although still in a nascent stage, the bill has already encountered opposition from Israeli security officials.

“The army, through the Civil Administration, retains control over Judea and Samaria and it should continue to be this way,” an anonymous defense source told The Times of Israel. “The entry of an external, non-military body into the West Bank territories is complex.”

“Israel has not annexed the territories, and thus the body responsible for all civilian and military life in the West Bank is the Civil Administration,” he said.

If the bill is passed into law, the IAA will be able to enforce its standards in the West Bank in the same manner it does within Israel proper, bolstering accusations that the government is moving toward de facto annexation of the region.

Addressing the bill, left-wing nonprofit Emek Shaveh told the Haaretz newspaper (Hebrew) that the move “raises the government’s intention to advance annexation by any means.”

Right-wing Israeli activists have long called for expanding the IAA’s power to the West Bank, and achieved a partial success two years ago (Hebrew) when the Civil Administration began allowing inspectors in the authority’s theft prevention unit to operate in the territory.

Chairman of the Religious Zionism party Bezalel Smotrich, center, with party members in the West Bank settlement of Efrat, October 26, 2022. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

At the time, Antiquities Authority director Eli Escusido assured Haaretz that the move would not lead to the agency operating in the West Bank.

“It is true that there is a campaign around this, but we will not take responsibility for Judea and Samaria,” Escusido told the paper in 2022. “We weren’t asked and we don’t want it. On the contrary, we want to strengthen the archaeology staff officer [within the Civil Administration].”

This move fits into the stated agenda of far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, a member of the ministerial committee, who was recorded in June telling his supporters about his plan to prevent the formation of a Palestinian state by transferring power over the West Bank from military to civilian hands.

Smotrich, who also holds a ministerial position in the Defense Ministry, was key to a massive shakeup within the Civil Administration last month, when the senior general leading the body approved the transfer of a slew of powers in the West Bank to a civilian administrator working out of the Defense Ministry.

“We created a separate civilian system,” Smotrich declared during a June 9 meeting.

Jeremy Sharon contributed to this report.

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