It costs four dollars to visit the archaeological site of Susiya in the southernmost part of the West Bank. For your four dollars you can view an ancient Jewish city, supposedly once home to 3,000 people which peaked in the years 400 to 800 CE, the late Talmudic, mid-Byzantine, and early Arab eras. The Jewish inhabitants are estimated to have disappeared some 1,200 years ago, according to the Center for Educational Tourism in Israel.
Father and son, Muhammad and Nasser Nawaj’ah, paid their four dollars, not to marvel at the century’s old synagogue or the ancient water system but to reminisce- Mohammed was born in one of the cave dwellings as was his son. The area is now devoid of any signs of the Palestinian village that existed until the late 1980’s but it is still infused with memories of both their childhoods, of the community’s traditional way of life and of a far more stable time.
In 1986 the Palestinian residents were forcibly evicted to make way for the archaeological park. Today they live close by and continue to face the threat of eviction. In a 2011 short film Nasser and Muhammad are shown returning to their previous homes 25 years after they were displaced. Their first journey back is short-lived with the Israeli soldiers seeming keen to escort the pair out of the site. Nasser interjects: “Excuse me soldier, we bought a ticket so we could see our home.” In contrast, shortly before the army arrived, the father and son had watched an Israeli explanatory video stating: “Only traces remain (of the Jewish civilization) in these silent ruins, but they are engraved in stone.” The ruins have been used to invoke a present day Jewish connection with the land, and in the process, there is an attempt to erase any Palestinian connection to it.
Yonathan Mizrachi from Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO that seeks to unpick the role archaeology plays in the Israel/Palestine conflict says it is about reinforcing identity. “Archaeology is being used to emphasize a specific narrative, one side of the conflict. The question “who was here before?” is central to this conflict. This says: “my roots are older than yours.’”
According to the NGO, in the Eighth and Ninth centuries, a mosque was built on the remains of the ancient synagogue found in Susiya. The presence of the mosque on top of the synagogue raises interesting questions, none of which are addressed and could greatly enhance understanding of Susya’s place in the cultural and social space of the South Hebron Hills.
There are many similar examples of archaeology being recruited to assert ownership, such as in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. Silwan is the site of the “City of David,” an archaeological attraction tempting scores of tourists and pilgrims every year. Visitors travel from across the globe to marvel at the artifacts and caves, admiring the picturesque views.
According to the Wadi Hilweh Information Center, 65% of Palestinian owned homes in Silwan have demolition orders ,with lack of building permits predominantly cited as the justification, yet only 20 such permits have been issued since 1967 and permission to build an extra floor has to travel though a total of 11 Israeli ministries. Currently a plan is underway to create “green zones” in the area which will displace 1,200 residents.
“It (the archaeological site) gives settlers the legitimisation to live there,”.Mizarchi noted. He added: “The City of David succeeded in creating a new identity of Silwan.”
Herodion, Herod the Greats monumental palace built around 23-20 BC and perched on the highest hill in the area, is another example. From the top of the site, the Palestinian city of Bethlehem in the West Bank, which lies just 5km away, is clearly visible. On approach you must drive past a military base and pay an entrance fee to an Israeli man whose desk sits in a shop selling “I love Israel” and “Visit Israel” t-shirts.
Memo visited the site and asked some of the tourists, who shuttled off buses run by Israeli tour companies, where they believed they were. Most were unsure. One woman from the US remarked, “Judging from the Israeli soldiers and the Hebrew, I would say Israel.” While her husband walked away muttering Israel defiantly, the woman returned and said in a whisper, “I suppose we are where the person with the biggest weapons wants to tell us we are. That’s not right, but I think that’s how it is.”
We are increasingly seeing archaeology recruited by the Israeli government and settlers to demonstrate connection and roots of the Jewish people to Palestinian land, asserting ownership, and attempting to simultaneously wipe away traces of Palestinian ownership. This is not the way it is meant to be assures Yonathan. He notes: “Think about Jerusalem; there are many cultures, civilisations, religions, all part of the history of Jerusalem. It should open your mind; it is a story of difference. It is not the story of one people.”