Palestinian Groups Ahead of ISIS in Destroying Antiquities

Destruction of antiquities and ancient artifacts by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has received considerable news media attention. Not so for other acts meant to erase the history of pre-Islamic peoples.

A Lexis-Nexis search shows that from July to September 2015, 13 editorials and articles appeared in The Washington Post alone on the threat to and eventual destruction by ISIS of one notable ancient site: the ancient Roman city of Palmyra in Syria. Yet, ISIS is far from alone when it comes to defacing and destroying evidence of ancient, non-Islamic civilizations.

Just as the al-Qaeda breakaway and now larger terrorist movement seeks to destroy antiquities that reflect a time before Islam (in Islamic terminology the Jahiliyyah or “age of ignorance”) and the Taliban dynamited the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan statues in Afghanistan in 2001, Palestinian Arabs have sought to erase evidence of the existence of the Jews on the land of Israel (eretz Yisrael) that predates any Arab or Muslim presence.

In August 2015, ISIS destroyed a fifth-century Christian monastery in the Syrian town of Qaryatain, claiming that the monastery was “worshipped without God.” The destruction received considerable media coverage, for example “Islamic State Destroys Assyrian Christian Monastery in Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 21, 2015)
In 2013, more than 200 terror attacks occurred at Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, where the Jewish matriarch Rachel is said to be buried—119 of those attacks included the use of explosives at the sacred site. Contrasted with its coverage of ISIS destructions, 2013 saw only one Washington Post three-sentence mention of attacks on Rachel’s Tomb (“Palestinian inmate buried as leaders try to halt unrest,” Feb. 26, 2013). And even that was confined to the bottom of an article detailing the death of a Palestinian terrorist.

In September 2015, four Palestinian terrorists were arrested for plotting an attack on another Jewish sacred site, Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus, the ancient Shechem in Samaria, the northern West Bank. They planned to set off explosives at the site but were caught and arrested by Israeli security forces—despite the fact that the men lived in areas governed by the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is bound by the 1993 Oslo accords to apprehend terrorists and prevent attacks.

Desecration of Jewish sites
This was not the first attack on the tombs of Joseph and Rachel. In October 2000—during the wave of organized Palestinian violence called the second intifada—rioters set fire to Joseph’s Tomb and purposefully destroyed Jewish prayer books there and murdered an Israeli border policeman and Rabbi Hillel Lieberman. Rachel’s Tomb was attacked with firebombs and automatic weapons. In the course of the second intifada, Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall—a sacred site in Judaism—were stoned by Arab mobs.
Overt violence is not the only means employed in attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state by seeking to destroy evidence of ancient Jewish history. There is a long history of degradation and destruction of Jewish holy sites, including at the Temple Mount—and correspondingly sparse media coverage of these incidents, as CAMERA has noted (“Media Mute on the Temple Mount Desecrations,” July 14, 2000).
The Temple Mount (Har HaBayit) is considered to be the most holy site in Judaism. Its sanctity long predates the building of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque at the same location in the century after the Islamic conquest. In recent decades news media often have described al-Aqsa as “Islam’s third holiest site” after Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia.

During Jordan’s occupation of Jerusalem and the West Bank (1948-1967), Jewish holy places in eastern Jerusalem were desecrated and destroyed and Jews were denied entry to the Temple Mount and the nearby Western Wall. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) gained possession of eastern Jerusalem, including the Old City and Temple Mount during the 1967 Six-Day War.

Following that war, Israel chose to maintain security and legal control while allowing the Muslim Waqf (or religious authority) to assert religious, economic, administrative and some security jurisdiction at Temple Mount, including al-Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock. This though the Quran (Islam’s holy scripture) never mentions either Jerusalem or the Temple Mount, both of which have been revered in Jewish prayer and tradition for millennia. And some scholars considered the Quranic reference to Mohammed’s “night journey” to “the furthest mosque” (“al-Aqsa”) to mean the most distant mosque in Arabia from the Islamic prophet’s residence, not Jerusalem, which he never visited.

At the time, Moshe Dayan, who decided to leave the Waqf in charge of religious affairs at Temple Mount, and other Israeli leaders expected the move to be taken as an indication of goodwill by the defeated Jordanians and local Muslims. But in subsequent years Arab groups have sought to erase the Jewish connection to the Temple Mount via illegal excavations and construction of new mosques. For example, the Waqf dismantled and covered up a wall believed to be part of the Herodian Second Temple that had been uncovered during digging to install a utility line in the 1970’s.
These actions violated the 1967 Protection of Holy Places Law and the 1978 Antiquities Act, which make it an offence to desecrate holy sites and require that any construction related activities receive written agreement from the director of the Department of Antiquities. In 1983, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the Waqf violated the Antiquities Act on 35 separate occasions.
A Pattern: First destruction, then denial
In 1996, acting without either permits or archaeological supervision, the Waqf brought in heavy machinery and began illegal construction. It did so while falsely claiming to be renovating a pre-existing mosque, one archaeologists deny ever existed.
Despite a court order to cease—which was met with Palestinian riots—unilateral construction by the Waqf continued with bulldozers and trucks being used to excavate and remove 6,000 tons of earth and dump it in the Kidron Valley. Subsequently, archaeologists claimed to have found Jewish artifacts among the rubble. The director of Israel’s Antiquities Authority, Amir Drori, called the
Waqf’s act an “archeological crime.” Attorney General Elyakim Rubenstein referred to the purposeful destruction as “an assault on Jewish history.” One Temple Mount item—found dumped in the Valley—was recently deciphered, revealing it to be an ancient stamp seal from the 10th or 11th century BCE (“Tiny stone seal from King David era found in Temple Mount fill,” Times of Israel, Sept. 24, 2015).
In the summer of 2007 the media was “mute” as CAMERA noted renewed construction with heavy tractors by the Waqf that damaged other ancient Jewish artifacts and structures (“The Battle Over Jerusalem and the Temple Mount,” Nov. 6, 2014 [updated]).
Statements by Palestinian leadership reveal the reasons for their actions. An Aug. 1, 2015 official Palestinian TV broadcast incited violence against Jews on the Temple Mount by repeating the claims of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, that Jewish history in Jerusalem is a “delusional myth” (“Incitement over Temple Mount Leads to Palestinian Violence, Again,” Sept. 16, 2015).
In seeking to destroy Jewish history in Jerusalem and elsewhere, some Palestinian Arabs are—similar to the more widely covered actions by ISIS, also known as the Islamic State or Islamic State in the Levant—attempting to rewrite history for their political ends. Major media would do well to note that ISIS is far from original in its revisionism by demolition.

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