Heritage Minister Eliyahu, a religious ultranationalist now in charge of the Israel Antiquities Authority, denies the existence of a Palestinian people.
A 2,700-year-old ivory incense spoon, displayed at the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, Jan. 19, 2023. (AP Photo/ Maya Alleruzzo)
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — An ivory spoon dating back 2,700 years that was recently repatriated to the Palestinian Authority from the United States has sparked a dispute with Israel’s new far-right government over the cultural heritage in the occupied West Bank.
The clash brings into focus the political sensitivities surrounding archaeology in the Middle East, where Israelis and Palestinians each use ancient artifacts to support their claims over the land.
Israel’s ultranationalist heritage minister has ordered officials to examine the legality of the U.S. government’s historic repatriation of the artifact to the Palestinians earlier this month, and is calling for annexing archaeology in the occupied West Bank.
The artifact — a cosmetic spoon made of ivory and believed to have been plundered from a site in the West Bank — was seized in late 2021 by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office as part of a deal with the New York billionaire hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt.
It was one of 180 artifacts illegally looted and purchased by Steinhardt that he surrendered as part of an agreement to avoid prosecution.
American officials handed an artifact over to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities on Jan. 5 in what the U.S. State Department’s Office of Palestinian Affairs said was “the first event of such repatriation” by the U.S. to the Palestinians.
Dozens of Steinhardt’s surrendered artifacts have already been repatriated to Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Israel. This spoon was the first and only item ever to be repatriated to the Palestinians.
The repatriation coincided with the first weeks of Israel’s new government, which is composed of ultranationalists who see the West Bank as the biblical heartland of the Jewish people and inextricably linked to the state of Israel.
Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu’s office said last week that the legality of the repatriation “is being examined by the archaeology staff officer with the legal counsel, which will examine all aspects of the matter, including the Oslo Accords that the U.S. has signed.”
The case underscores how archaeology and cultural heritage are intertwined with the competing claims of the Israelis and Palestinians in the decades-long conflict.
“Any artifact that we know that it comes out illegally from Palestine, we have the right to have it back,” said Jihad Yassin, director general of excavations and museums in the Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry. “Each artifact says a story from the history of this land.”
The ministry is part of the Palestinian Authority, the government established as part of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s that exercises limited autonomy in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Those agreements between Israel and the Palestinians were supposed to include coordination on a raft of issues, including archaeology and cultural heritage.
But the agreements have largely unraveled. Yassin said that the archaeology committee has not met in around two decades, and that there is virtually zero coordination between Israel and the Palestinians concerning antiquities theft prevention in the West Bank.
“We try to do our best to protect these archaeological sites, but we face difficulties,” he said.