ToI investigatesAncient fences don't make good neighbors

Settlers take on West Bank archaeology as ancient ‘Joshua’ wall tumbles down

Destruction of barrier at Iron Age Israelite cultic site deep in PA-controlled Area B creates media maelstrom, as right-wing campaign claims Palestinians destroying heritage sites

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

On January 26, Shooki Levine witnessed the aftershocks of what he describes as a “terrorist attack.” At an extremely rare early Iron Age archaeological site on Mount Ebal near the West Bank city of Nablus, an outer wall that had stood for over 3,000 years was repeatedly breached during Palestinian Authority roadworks, causing irreversible damage.

While the interpretation of what exactly this cultic site was used for — and by whom — is still up for debate, a consensus of archaeologists date it to somewhere around the 11th century BCE, or when the Israelites evidently began to settle the land of Canaan.

Over three millennia later, the site has become the focal point of a campaign by settlers who want Israel to take a more active role in preserving archaeological sites in Palestinian-controlled areas, and who may have wound up doing harm themselves via a covert attempt to “repair” the ancient wall.

The issue has swiftly snowballed into a political fight that has garnered major headlines and sparked accusations carrying highly charged language, underlining the sensitive push and pull between science and politics surrounding archaeological excavations in the West Bank.

The carnage to the priceless early Israelite site on Mount Ebal occurred during Israel-approved Palestinian Authority roadworks to connect Nablus to the nearby village of Asira al-Shamilya. After it came to light, the mayor of Asira al-Shamilya said any damage was inadvertent.

‘Joshua’s Altar’ at the Mount Ebal archaeological site, February 15, 2021. (Courtesy, Shomrim Al Hanetzach)

The site known by locals as “Al-Burnat,” or “top hat” in Arabic, is regarded as an exceedingly rare and significant illustration of early Israelite settlement, the only one of its type in the area.

“This is an important site, belonging to the wave of settlement in the highlands in the early phase of the Iron Age,” said Prof. Israel Finkelstein, one of the world’s leading researchers on Iron Age settlement in the region.

“As far as I can judge, it dates to the 11th century BCE. As such, it can be understood as representing the groups which established the kingdom of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) in the 10th century BCE. In other words, it is an early Israelite site,” he told The Times of Israel.

Bar Ilan University’s Prof. Aren Maeir told The Times of Israel that the site was likely significant “on a global scale — an important cultural heritage site for anyone interested in the history and culture of this region.”

The site is also revered by some Christians and Jews as the place where the biblical Joshua built an altar as commanded in Deuteronomy 27, which is described in Joshua 8:31 as “an altar of unhewn stones, upon which no man had lifted up any iron.” In the 1980s, Prof. Adam Zertal proposed the altar explanation after undertaking several seasons of excavations there.

The scientific archaeological community has largely rejected this biblical identification, but researchers are unanimous over its significance, regardless of whether it is the site of Joshua’s altar.

“Even without accepting Zertal’s interpretation, this an extremely important site, representing not only the very early phase of the ‘Israelite settlement’ in the early Iron Age, but also one of the few cultic sites related to this phenomenon,” emphasized Bar Ilan’s Maeir.

Levine, a former security professional turned tour guide, who also worked with Zertal as an excavator, discovered the damage to the low barrier wall that demarcates the outer edge of the Iron Age site when he brought a group of settler leaders to Mount Ebal.

“I went up with a team from the Samaria Regional Council, to teach them about the various sites on the mountain,” Levine told The Times of Israel. What he found was that in several spots along the circa 3,000-year-old border wall, heavy machinery had “chewed up” parts of the stone barrier, he said. Additionally, some eight piles of stones to the west of the wall that were part of the Iron Age settlement were likewise destroyed, he said.

‘Joshua’s Altar,’ at the Mount Ebal archaeological site, February 15, 2021. (Courtesy, Shomrim Al Hanetzach)

The core of the site, which he calls an altar based on the analysis and interpretation of excavator Zertal, was not touched, he confirmed.

Levine told The Times of Israel that, in 1997, after working on the site for several seasons, Zertal promoted him to supervisor for the conservation portion of the dig, “to be sure that the Arabs who came to do the preservation worked according to Zertal’s orders.”

Today, Levine is one of the site’s prominent de facto guardians, and often takes Jewish and Christian pilgrims on tours to the disputed altar.

A longtime resident of the West Bank’s Karnei Shomron settlement who recently moved to the city of Raanana, Levine explains Zertal’s vision at every opportunity, continuing the legacy of the biblical archaeologist who died in 2015. He said he initiated a clean-up there last year, including the shipment of 110 bales of discarded earth to be wet sifted at the Shaveh Shomrom Midrasha under the auspices of Shiloh excavator Dr. Scott Strippling. He also claimed to have paid out of pocket last year for 3D modeling coordinates to be taken by a team of Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists. (The IAA said that, if performed, the measurements were taken by archaeologists in a private capacity.)

Tour guide Shooki Levine at the Mount Ebal archaeological site. (Courtesy)

Levine has big plans to see better signage at the site in English, Hebrew, and Arabic (all previous signs were stolen, he said), and fencing to make clear its borders. The conservation at the site needs an update and he is concerned that people can fall easily — and make the stones fall.

Anatomy of a media storm

Immediately after witnessing the rampant destruction to the low barrier wall on Mount Ebal, Levine alerted the activist group Shomrim al HaNetzach (Preserving the Eternal), which is aligned with the right-wing NGO Regavim, and works to protect archaeological sites in the West Bank, including those in lands controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

The Mount Ebal site is one of dozens of important archaeological remains located in Area B of the West Bank, and thus under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, which is supposed to maintain and protect heritage sites as per the Oslo Accords. The PA governance does include a Tourism and Archaeology Minister, but it does not have a robust team of archaeologists tasked with guarding and maintaining the dozens of sites that dot the territory, nor does the PA regularly provide archaeological supervision during roadworks and infrastructure, according to researchers. The PA minister and other Palestinian government officials refused repeated requests for comment from The Times of Israel.

Right-wing Israeli activists have long accused the Palestinians of failing to properly preserve heritage sites, and they swiftly turned the Mount Ebal damage into a rallying cry for their cause.

Quickly, Shomrim al HaNetzach operations coordinator Guy Derech located a video of a construction team from nearby Asira al-Shamilya undertaking roadworks near the site, which was posted on the municipality’s Facebook page. The activist group translated it to Hebrew and disseminated it to select right-wing Israeli media, where it quickly caught the attention of mainstream Israeli media.

אתר המזבח בהר עיבל בסכנה!לפני מספר חודשים הגישה חה''כ מיכל שיר – Michal Shir שאילתה דחופה לגבי עבודות שמבצעת הרשות…

Posted by ‎שומרים על הנצח‎ on Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Eventually, the saga and the “destruction of Joshua’s Altar” reached the highest political echelons: President Reuven Rivlin called for the IDF to protect the site, stating, “Our land has a bounty of holy sites of immense religious, historic and archeological value. These sites, including the altar of Joshua at Mount Ebal, are heritage sites of incalculable national and universal value.” MK Zvi Hauser called for a Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee site visit.

But Defense Minister Benny Gantz responded saying the archaeological site itself was not damaged and that he would not dedicate IDF soldiers to the cause as the visit would be “political in nature.” (A group of high-profile archaeologists sent a firm letter avowing that the wall is, indeed, a portion of the early Iron Age site.)

Others on the right have also seized upon the issue for political gain, including some who accuse the Palestinians of a “terrorist attack” on archaeology.

Yamina head Naftali Bennett posted a video of himself at the site with Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan emphasizing the “biblical” ties to the place and accusing the Palestinian Authority of an “Islamic State-like act.”

The saga peaked on February 11 when, in a made-for-Hollywood moment, a covert “restoration” operation was initiated by Dagan, with no supervision by a trained archaeological conservationist.

“Finally putting its hands in its pockets,” as Levine tells it, the Samaria Regional Council funded a private Jewish contractor to “restore” the wall. However, the effort was unsupervised by archaeologists and the contractor’s workers took random stones from the area in a stop-gap measure. While the breaches were “closed,” according to Levine, the new sections do not look authentic and are hardly a “restoration,” rather a “fix,” he said. (He intends to bring an archaeologist to the site this week.)

From left: Samaria Council head Yossi Dagan, Yamina head Naftali Bennett, Jewish Home’s Davidi Ben Zion visit the Mount Ebal archaeological site, February 14, 2021. (courtesy)

“I don’t know what is more of a tragedy,” said Dr. Assaf Avraham, whose expertise is in early Iron Age construction, “the original destruction or the attempt at reconstruction.”

Site and ‘site’

To the untrained eye, the low border wall surrounding Mount Ebal’s “Joshua’s Altar” site looks like any number of terrace walls found across the Land of Israel that were created by farmers’ removal of stones from arable fields over the centuries.

The initial damage appears to have occurred in December, during work to pave a new road connecting Asira al-Shamilya and Nablus. Instead of trucking in gravel to be used as a first layer of the road, the Palestinian contractor brought in a machine designed to chew up stone at the site and spit out gravel to be used as the road’s foundation layer.

In what most consider an “innocent mistake,” according to Avraham and a half dozen others interviewed for this story, the contractor mistook the low barrier wall built in the early Iron Age for a common terrace. Archaeologists believe the wall was arguably constructed as a way of delineating the sacred space of the cultic site, but for many visitors, the “site” is actually the altar, located several meters away far inside the low ancient border wall.

In conversation with The Times of Israel, Asira al-Shamilya Mayor Hazem Yassin denied that the new road had used any of the stones from the archeological site, and insisted that the site had not been damaged by the road works.

Destruction to a low stone early Iron Age wall at the Mount Ebal archaeological site, February 10, 2021. (Courtesy, Shomrim Al Hanetzach)

“We built the road in part to facilitate access to the archeological site. Why would we destroy it?” Yassin said.

Pressed specifically about the apparent reference to the shrine in a municipality video showing the construction that was disseminated by Shomrim al HaNetzach, Yassin said the accusation hinged on a misunderstanding.

“Local residents refer to the whole area by that name, not just the site. The stones which we used for the road were not from the site, specifically. ‘Al-Burnat’ is an area extending over 800 dunams,” Yassin said.

We built the road in part to facilitate access to the archeological site. Why would we destroy it?

But Yassin did acknowledge that some residents had taken some stones from a wall close to the site, which he said was “300 meters [almost 1,000 feet] away.” He said he had been approached after the fact by Israeli officers who said that it was part of the site.

“They said that this is the site’s wall, but we consider it to be an old wall dividing one area from the next. We don’t think it has anything to do with the site. If there are any problems, we’re happy to collaborate and rebuild,” Yassin told The Times of Israel.

This is Area B

Addressing Gantz and the mayor of Asira al-Shamilya’s claims that the low border wall was not part of the early Iron Age site, Avraham said bluntly, “The wall that was ruined is part of the site, part of the compound. It is as if part of the Western Wall was chewed up — it is part of the sacred space.”

Avraham explained that while the wall is clearly not designed for fortification, it is of the same period and appears to be a form of a border. “Why they built it and what it was used for is still under discussion,” said Avraham.

The wall that was ruined is part of the site, part of the compound. It is as if part of the Western Wall was chewed up — it is part of the sacred space

Avraham said while he can understand the motivations behind the haphazard rebuild, he sees it as a missed opportunity to conduct new archaeological testing that was not widely available during the Zertal excavation, such as Optically-Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) and even radiocarbon14 on in situ organic samples. The unsupervised rebuild potentially eliminated that window, although he said he plans to visit the site and perhaps take part in an effort to salvage what may be left.

“The whole problem is,” said Avraham, “this is Area B and there is no Israeli protection.”

‘Joshua’s Altar’ at the Mount Ebal archaeological site, February 15, 2021. (Courtesy, Shomrim Al Hanetzach)

That vacuum of authority and responsibility is the founding motivation behind the Shomrim Al HaNetzach group, according to Derech, who is studying for his BA in archaeology at Bar Ilan University.

“The restoration is nice and aesthetic, but the damage that was done is irreversible,” said Derech. “It’s not enough to merely reconstruct, but we must be certain that incidents of this nature won’t happen again in the future.”

It’s not enough to merely reconstruct, but we must be certain that incidents of this nature won’t happen again in the future

Derech claimed that there are dozens of other heritage sites that are not being preserved by the PA.

“We are demanding from the government of Israel to take overarching responsibility for all of the sites that are suffering — in Judaea and Samaria, and in Areas A, B, and C. Not to wait until there is destruction and attempt to repair it, but rather avoid it to begin with,” he said.

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), the Israeli Defense Ministry’s unit which engages the Palestinian Authority on civilian matters, said it has no authority in Area B of the West Bank, which is under Palestinian civil control as per the Oslo Accords. “As is well known, the Civil Administration is entrusted with the exercise of civilian powers in Area C only, and therefore works in this area alone to preserve the archeological sites, as well as to prevent robbery and destruction of antiquities.”

Derech claimed there is precedent to the one-sided step of Israel resuming control: “In Oslo, it is also written that the IDF shouldn’t go into Area A. But when there were terrorist attacks [during the Second Intifada], and one side didn’t stand by its obligations, then Israel entered,” said Derech.

When it comes to security operations, said Derech, “it is very easy for Israel to take these steps. The minute that it comes to our heritage, the basis of our existence, they are hesitant. Where there is authority without responsibility, the other side must take up the cause.”

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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