Baptismal relic latest focus of opposing narratives

The Israeli authorities have stolen an archaeological stone relic from the home of a Palestinian official in the West Bank, claiming it was Israel’s in the first place.

al-monitor A screenshot from a video posted to Facebook shows an Israeli army truck removing a 6th-century stone relic from a Palestinian home in the Bethlehem district of the West Bank, June 20, 2020. Photo by FACEBOOK/Oday Daibes.
Daoud Kuttab

Daoud Kuttab

@daoudkuttab

Topics covered

Archaeology

Jul 24, 2020

In the pre-dawn hours of June 20, a huge Israeli flatbed truck arrived under the protection of the Israeli army at the home of Taysir Abu Mufreh, the director of the Tuqu municipality, a town in the Bethlehem district of the West Bank. Using the truck’s forklift, the Israelis removed an eight-ton 6th century stone relic that had been used by early Christians to conduct adult baptisms.

Palestinian photojournalist Oday Daibes posted a video on social media of the Israeli action, causing a great deal of criticism against the Israeli archaeological theft. The official Palestinian news agency Wafa reported June 20 on the archaeological relic, documenting the various stages it went through since 2000.

International law prohibits an occupying power from taking archaeological relics. The international community made such action a war crime due to the archaeological theft by the Nazi regime during their occupation of most of Europe back in the 1940s. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, The Hague Convention of 1954 and its protocols of 1991-1999, and UNESCO 1970 and 1972 all make theft of archeaological items a war crime.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee and responsible for culture and education, tweeted her condemnation of the act calling it a “typical” Israeli act, writing, “Israel steals our land & resources, plunders our archeological/historical sites, appropriates our cultural heritage & seeks to eradicate all evidence of our identity & continuity in our ancestral homeland — a settler-colonial attempt at erasing evidence of the indigenous.”

Israelis were quick to respond, claiming that the archaeological unit in the civil administration had been looking for this relic for decades, which they say was stolen from an archaeological site in the Bethlehem area. The Times of Israel, which reported on the story, quoted an Israeli official boasting excitement. “This is an important and exciting moment,” said Hananya Hizmi, head of the Archaeological Unit at the Civil Administration, the Defense Ministry body that governs the West Bank. “We have succeeded in returning a unique archaeological relic after years of searching.”

But Palestinians scoffed at the claim of the relic being hidden. George Rishmawi, the director of Abraham Path, a local tourist initiative that conducts tours in Palestine, told Al-Monitor that the stone baptismal site has been part of a regular tour for years. “You can see it on our website. Thousands of people have seen it and pictured it,” Rishmawi said, adding that Jerry Levine, a pro-Palestinian-American Jewish activist, wrote a long piece about the relic 20 years ago.

A 2015 documentary prepared by Jerusalem’s Christian Media Center, a Catholic nongovernmental organization, reveals that the rosy font, which weighs approximately eight tons, was part of a local Byzantine-era church. The documentary also includes interviews with people who have followed and documented the relic.

Palestinians confirm that in fact the relic was stolen by archaeological thieves in 2000 from the nearby Khirbet Tuqu, but that the Tuqu municipality succeeded in bringing it back. Abu Mufreh told Al-Monitor that they had found it in the largely Christian town of Beit Jala and brought it back. “For us, this is part of our heritage and we wanted it to be preserved,” he noted. 

Not finding a proper place to put this huge monument, the municipality agreed to temporarily place it in Abu Mufreh’s garden. “We contacted the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and we asked them to find a proper place for it. We have also been considering creating a local museum, but we have not been able to raise enough money for that,” Abu Mufreh added.

Al-Monitor has learned that the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism is planning to issue a detailed report on the case in cooperation with the Palestinian mission to UNESCO.

According to Abu Mufreh, part of the problem has been the unfair division of Palestinian land in the Oslo Accord into Area A, Area B and Area C

Palestinian archaeologists have been barred from doing any digs in Area C, which is under total Israeli administrative and security control whereas Area A and Area B are under Palestinian administrative control and archaeological digs are allowed. The original location of the font was in nearby Khirbet Tuqu, which is in Area C, whereas the home of Abu Mufreh is in Area B. Israeli security is allowed freely into both Area B and Area C, according to the Oslo Accord.

Rishmawi confirmed the details of the font’s recent history and said that the Ministry of Tourism did create an identification number for it and documented it with the relevant international agencies. UNESCO has yet to produce a statement on the case, and Israel has not revealed where the relic has been taken to.

The controversy over the archaeological relic is the latest case of alternate narratives, with Israelis insisting on rejecting that Palestinian areas taken in the 1967 war are “occupied territories.” Israel officials deal with the area using the Jewish term Judea and Samaria as their own, claiming it has always belonged to Jews and that they have a right to despite it being populated by Palestinians for millennia.

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