Analysis: Row over shrines could shape the Middle East

By Nathan Jeffay, February 25, 2010
An archaeologist unveils a 10th century wall in Jerusalem this week

An archaeologist unveils a 10th century wall in Jerusalem this week

The excitement was palpable in Jerusalem this week. Archaeologists hit the jackpot.

They went public with their latest discovery: 420 sq m of ancient city wall which they believe to be from the 10th century BCE.

"This is the first time that a structure from that time has been found that may correlate with written descriptions of Solomon's building in Jerusalem," announced Eilat Mazar, who directed the excavations.

But this wall is not the jackpot only because it looks impressive, or because it is so old, or because it will become yet another important tourist attraction. It is the jackpot because of the importance it could have for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Accurately described, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict consists of three main battles. There is the battle over the future - who will rule which territories in five, 10 or 20 years' time.

There is the battle over the present, with Palestinians decrying and opposing Israeli measures such as restriction of movement and its security barrier because they make their lives a misery, while Israel says these are necessary for its security.

And there is the battle over the past - conflicting accounts of modern history, and in the more distant past, the question of who has roots in this land.

This third battle came into the spotlight on Sunday when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu announced that two West Bank sites, the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem, would be added to the list of national heritage sites that the government plans to

He said that Israel's existence "depends not only on the IDF or our economic resilience" but also on "our ability to justify our connection to the land". And so began an exchange of verbal fire in the battle over the past.

Hamas's ruler in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, called for an intifada, claiming that Mr Netanyahu's decision "aims to erase our identity, alter our Islamic monuments and steal our history".

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, generally described as a moderate, said that it "could provoke a religious war".

A statement from Mr Netanyahu's office charged critics of his move with igniting a "mendacious and hypocritical campaign", while Danny Dayan, chairman of the settler umbrella body the Yesha Council, accused Mr Abbas of "trying to deny Jewish history in its entirety". He asked sarcastically, "what can you do" if biblical figures "didn't ask Abbas's permission" before they buried their dead in Hebron.

A day after the heritage plan was unveiled on Sunday came the announcement about the city wall in Jerusalem. And while it was Mr Netanyahu's plan that grabbed most of the headlines, it is this discovery that will have more long-term effect on the situation in the Middle East.

Heritage plans can be launched and dropped. The wall, on the other hand, is quite literally, set in stone.

The thrust of the statement that Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs released announcing the find was clear - Jewish civilisation in Jerusalem is nothing new, and here, it says, is evidence that it dates back thousands of years.

Dr Mazar - who is criticised by some archaeologists for her self-described habit of working "with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other"- was quoted as saying: "The city wall that has been uncovered testifies to a ruling presence. Its strength and form of construction indicate a high level of engineering."

Coming as Mr Netanyahu has decided to "justify" the connection of Jews to Israel, and three years after former ambassador Dore Gold coined the phrase "Temple denial" to describe the discourse among Palestinians, many on the Israeli side will be working hard to ensure that the discovery of this wall will prove a political as well as an archaeological milestone.

Nathan Jeffay is an Israel-based journalist

Last updated: 4:23pm, February 25 2010