Israel is investigating the legality of the US transfer of artifacts to the Palestinians

BETHLEHEM – A 2,700-year-old ivory spoon that was recently repatriated to the Palestinian Authority from the United States has sparked a dispute with Israel’s new far-right government over cultural heritage in the occupied West Bank.

The clash highlights political sensitivities surrounding archeology in the Middle East, where Israelis and Palestinians use ancient artifacts to assert their claims to the land.

Israel’s ultra-nationalist heritage minister ordered officials to examine the legality of the historic repatriation of an artifact to the Palestinian Authority by the US government earlier this month and is calling for the annexation of archaeological sites in the occupied West Bank.

The artifact — an ivory cosmetic spoon believed to have been stolen from a site in the West Bank — was seized in late 2021 by Manhattan prosecutors as part of deal with New York billionaire hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt.

It was one of 180 artifacts illegally looted and purchased by Steinhardt, which he turned over as part of a plea deal to avoid prosecution.

U.S. officials handed over the artifact to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities on Jan. 5, in what the U.S. State Department’s Office of Palestine Affairs said was “the first such repatriation” by the U.S. to Palestinians.

Dozens of artifacts handed over by Steinhardt have already been repatriated to Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Israel. This spoon was the first and only item ever returned to the Palestinians.

The repatriation coincided with the first weeks of Israel’s new government, which is made up of ultra-nationalists who see the West Bank as the biblical center of the Jewish people and inextricably linked to the state of Israel.

Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu’s office said last week that the legality of the repatriation “is being reviewed by an archaeological staff member with legal counsel who will examine all aspects of the case, including the Oslo Accords signed by the US.”

The case highlights how archeology and cultural heritage are intertwined with the competing claims of Israelis and Palestinians in the decades-long conflict.

“Any artifact that we know has been illegally taken out of Palestine, we have the right to return it,” said Jihad Yassin, director general of the excavations and museums division of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. “Each artifact tells a story from the history of this land.”

The ministry is part of the Palestinian Authority, a government created under the Oslo Accords in the 1990s that exercises limited autonomy in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

These agreements between Israel and the Palestinians were supposed to include coordination on a range of issues, including archeology and cultural heritage.

But the agreements are largely broken. Yassin said the archeology committee had not met in about two decades and that there was little coordination between Israel and the Palestinians on preventing the theft of antiquities in the West Bank.

“We are trying to do our best to protect these archaeological sites, but we are facing difficulties,” he said.

Yassin said that about 60% of the West Bank’s archaeological sites are in areas under full Israeli military control, and that his ministry’s anti-theft officers “manage to control a high percentage of looting” in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

However, many of the illegal artifacts that entered Israel’s legal antiquities market were stolen from the West Bank, he said.

According to court documents, Steinhardt purchased the ivory cosmetic spoon in 2003 from Israeli antiquities dealer Gil Chai for $6,000. The artifact did not have a provenance — documents detailing where it came from and how it ended up in the dealer’s inventory — but Chaya said the object was from the Palestinian Authority-controlled West Bank city of El Qom.

Another artifact believed to have been stolen in the same city, “a red carnelian sunfish amulet (that) dates to around 600 BC,” remains missing, according to the prosecutor’s office. Steinhardt has yet to locate the item, but if it is found, it will be repatriated to the Palestinians, the office said.

American authorities returned 28 objects to Israel last year, except for three that were confiscated on the spot at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Seven others, who are to be returned to Israel, have not yet been found. Several items returned to Israel are believed to have been stolen from the West Bank.

The Israel Antiquities Authority declined to comment on the return of the artifact to the Palestinians.

Heritage Minister Eliyahu, a religious ultranationalist in the Netanyahu government who now heads the country’s Antiquities Authority, denies the existence of a Palestinian people.

Since taking office, he has accused the Palestinian Authority of committing “national terrorism” and “erasing heritage” at archaeological sites in Palestinian-controlled territory near the West Bank city of Nablus.

It remains unclear what impact the ministry’s legal advice review may have. It is unlikely that Israel could confiscate the artifact from the Palestinians, but a legal ruling against the move could potentially complicate future repatriation.

Earlier this week, Eliyahu said he would hand the Israel Antiquities Authority full control over archaeological sites, cultural heritage and anti-theft control throughout the West Bank – a move critics say would effectively apply Israeli law to the occupied territory in violation of international the right

Currently, archeological excavations and antiquities in the West Bank are managed by the staff officer of archeology of the Civil Administration, which is part of the Ministry of Defense. Israel has not officially annexed the West Bank, and the area is considered occupied and administered under martial law.

“All heritage on both sides of the Green Line will receive full international and scientific protection,” Eliyahu wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday. He said that the state of Israel will “act unitedly and professionally from the (Mediterranean) Sea to Jordan.”

Alon Arad, director of the Israeli cultural heritage NGO Emek Shaveh, said putting the Israel Antiquities Authority in charge of archeology in the occupied territory “activates Israeli law in the West Bank, which amounts to annexation.”

Eliyahu’s office declined repeated requests for an interview.

Yasin said that for now the artifact will remain in the ministry, where it will be studied by one of the archaeologists. Then, he said, it will be exhibited in one of the West Bank museums.

“This is not the only one,” Yassin said. “This is the beginning.”

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