Israel will not allow Palestinians to damage a major archaeological site located deep in the biblical heartland of Samaria, one that is revered by millions of Jews and Christians as the location where Joshua built an altar, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said.
The minister spoke following Palestinian media reports regarding a planned Palestinian construction project in the area of Mount Ebal, an early Israelite cultic site near the ancient city of Shechem. The city, referred to today as Nablus, appears in the Bible as the first capital of the Kingdom of Israel.
The site, located in Area B of Judea and Samaria, commonly called the West Bank, has been under joint control with the Palestinians, as stipulated by the Oslo Accords, for the last quarter century.
The Mount Ebal issue also highlights the need for the preservation, upkeep and safeguarding of Israeli archaeological sites in Palestinian-controlled areas after decades of neglect, damage and disrepair.
“In the wake of reports over the last days in the Palestinian media over planned construction in the area of the Mount Ebal altar, it has been clarified…to the Palestinian Authority that we will not allow any damage to the altar, which has been defined as an archaeological site of historic cultural and religious significance,” Gallant wrote in an official letter.
The Jan. 18 missive, a copy of which was obtained by JNS, was sent to MK Limor Son Har-Melech (Otzma Yehudit).
The defense minister added that he has instructed the IDF to carry out frequent patrols in the area, and to prevent any activity which could damage the site.
“The matter raised…will be examined by the authorized offices, and the enforcement authorities in the Judea and Samaria area will take action, if necessary, in accordance with the responsibilities they carry under the law and the agreements,” read a response sent to JNS by COGAT, the Israeli Defense Ministry body that deals with Palestinian civilian affairs.
An Israeli activist with the NGO that brought the Palestinian construction plan to light welcomed the minister’s pledge as “a first step” but said that beefed-up military patrols alone were insufficient.
“The only thing that will ensure the safety of the altar site and will anchor Israeli control over the ridge is a permanent Jewish settlement on the site, similar to an archaeological national park or community,” said Benayahu Mellet of the Forum for the Struggle for Every Dunam.
A dunam, an Ottoman unit of measure still used in Israel for land, is, in its modern definition, equal to a tenth of a hectare, or 0.247105 acres.
Iron Age compound
The Iron Age compound on Mount Ebal, dating to the 11th century BCE, is located in Area B, and so is under Israeli security and Palestinian civilian control.
Israeli Jews are not allowed to visit the site without military coordination.
Groups of Evangelical Christians continue to routinely visit the site with an IDF escort, said Aaron Lipkin, the Israeli owner of a travel agency that specializes in tours of the biblical heartland for Evangelicals.
Two years ago, the outer walls of the roughly 3,000-year-old site were damaged during Palestinian roadwork carried out by crews from the nearby village of Asira ash-Shamaliya, prompting an earlier Israeli outcry. The village mayor said at the time that any damage was unintentional.
Lipkin, who leads weekly groups to the site, said that the compound is in an ongoing state of deterioration and has been vandalized and neglected over the past two decades.
“This is clearly an Israelite site which is part of the biblical heritage,” he said.
In his letter, Gallant wrote that the Defense Ministry will soon hold a meeting with parliamentarians regarding the preservation of archaeological sites in Judea and Samaria, including at Mount Ebal.
The most serious damage inflicted at a Jewish holy site in the Palestinian-controlled territories has taken place at the compound revered by Jews as Joseph’s Tomb and located inside Nablus. It was repeatedly ransacked, vandalized and set on fire, in violation of agreements requiring the Palestinians to safeguard holy sites.
In contrast, the hilltop at Mount Ebal lies mostly deserted, with passing motorists unlikely to realize its significance.
In the 1980s, Israeli archaeologist Adam Zertal, who carried out excavations at the site, identified it with that of Joshua’s altar, although this view remains in dispute among scholars four decades later. With the area subsequently falling under Palestinian civilian control, no additional digs have been carried out following the Oslo Accords.
Last year, a group of international scholars who had sifted through a dump pile from the 1980s excavations announced that they had discovered a tablet at Mount Ebal containing the oldest extant Hebrew inscription, one invoking the name of God. Based on epigraphic analysis of the scans and lead analysis of the artifact, they date the tiny lead curse tablet to 1,200 BCE, which would prove the Israelites were literate when they entered the Holy Land. Their final report and peer reviews of their find are still pending.
“It is not an issue over what this site is, but what it symbolizes,” Lipkin said. “It is a story of a narrative.”