Washington, DC – Hobby Lobby, the US-based arts-and-crafts retailer recently fined for buying Iraqi artefacts on the black market, gave $25,000 to organisations based in Israeli settlements – including archaeological groups plundering Palestine’s cultural heritage.
The payments were made by the Museum of the Bible (MB), Hobby Lobby’s non-profit museum set to open in Washington, DC in November.
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The information comes from tax documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service, the US body responsible for collecting taxes.
Non-profit organisations are required by law to file these tax forms, which are then made publicly available.
Ahmed Rjoob, director-general of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Al Jazeera that Israel’s theft of Palestine’s cultural heritage “significantly impacts Palestinian social, economic, and cultural sustainability”.
“Israeli archaeological activities significantly impact the ability of Palestinians to access, use and develop their lands and habitats,” he said.
Excavating West Bank artefacts
The MB donated $15,000 to UHLICARE Inc, the non-profit organisation for the University of the Holy Land (UHL), in 2015, the most recent year for which information is available.
UHL’s website boasts its location as two minutes away from Jerusalem’s Old City in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians see as the capital of their presumptive state.
The area has been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war that saw Israel occupy the totality of historic Palestine, including East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, along with the Syrian Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
The University of the Holy Land’s website says it is “an internationally accredited, Christian-run, Bible-based” graduate school. Universtiy President Stephen Pfann lists “Qumran Studies” as one of his areas of expertise.
Qumran is the site where the famed Dead Sea Scrolls were found. It’s located in the portion of the West Bank called “Area C”. The Oslo Accords II, signed in 1995, divided the West Bank into three regions, A, B and C, under varying Palestinian and Israeli control.
Area C, which comprises 61 percent of the West Bank, is under total Israeli control. The scrolls are written in Greek, Aramaic and ancient Hebrew. They have been attributed to various Jewish sects and are estimated to have been written between 400 and 300 BCE.
Their discovery took place in 1946 and 1947, before Israel was founded. Subsequent discoveries took place under the guidance of Jordan, which claimed sovereignty over the West Bank in 1967.
Pfann, who did not respond to requests for comment, appears to continue excavating artefacts in the occupied territories.
Israel has acquired the vast majority of Dead Sea Scrolls, and works with international institutions on studies and further digs. Jordan holds a much smaller portion of the scrolls.
Israel has worked with other nations and museums and archaeological organisations to study and continue excavations in the area. To Rjoob, their stewardship has been used for political purposes.
“Archaeology has been used by the Israeli occupation as an important tool to [make] legitimate its illegal control over Palestine, utilising ancient biblical tales and sites to inspire Israeli public sentiment,” he said.
Two Christian archaeologists wrote that the January discovery of further artefacts at the 12th Qumran cave “proves” the scrolls belong to Israel.
The three pieces of evidence presented are: area C was a part of “historic Israel”, the languages of the scrolls, which do not include Arabic (even though later scrolls from nearby areas do) and Israel’s care of the artefacts.
The authors, Jeremiah Johnson and Craig Evans, both professors at Christian universities, wrote that their “friend and colleague” Cary Summers, president of the MB, was present for the discovery.
Summers’ website is filled with pro-Israel posts, touching on everything from archaeology to culinary issues.
The MB is set to display artefacts from Qumran, occupied East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighbourhood, which is the site of the controversial “City of David,” a settler-archaeology site that is displacing native Palestinians.
Whether artefacts are found in area A, B, C or East Jerusalem, international law says the artefacts belong inside Palestine, Rjoob said.
‘Breaching international law’
Rjoob listed various agreements that create customary international law that support Palestine’s case: UNESCO accords, UN Security Council resolutions and, perhaps most clearly, the 1954 Hague Convention, an international treaty that serves as the framework to protect cultural heritage in times of armed conflict.
According to the first protocol of this convention, those who signed the treaty will “prevent the exportation, from a territory occupied by it during an armed conflict, of cultural property”.
Both Israel and Palestine are signatories to this treaty, so in theory, Palestine “could sue Israel for breaching this Protocol before the International Court of Justice”, Marina Lostal, a professor of international law at The Hague University who specialises in cultural property, told Al Jazeera.
Regarding Hobby Lobby’s financial support of the Israeli occupation archaeology, Lostal explained that international law on trafficking of cultural heritage does not include corporations in its framework.
“This is not a weakness, per se, as it is for each state to incorporate international law in its domestic system,” she said.
The answer may lie in US domestic law, Lostal concluded.
When “ownership of an antiquity is vested in a nation, one who removes the antiquity without permission is a thief, and the antiquities are stolen property”, Patty Gerstenblith, a distinguished research professor of law at DePaul University, wrote in a 2016 Department of Justice guide to cultural property law.
However, Palestine’s status is a point of difficulty. While the ruling Palestinian Authority refers to itself as the “State of Palestine”, and the territory is recognised as such by more than 70 percent of the UN’s 193 member states, Israel considers the West Bank and Gaza as “disputed territories“, and sees Jerusalem as its “eternal capital“.
The US does not recognise a Palestinian state, although it has spent decades working towards a two-state solution. The Trump administration has retreated from this stance.
Regardless, Rjoob said Palestine has “plans to repatriate all artefacts that left Palestine illegally, especially those still seized by the Israeli Occupation” through mechanisms of international law.
With international law and decades of US diplomacy pitted against working to remove artefacts from Palestine, why do so many archaeologists work with Israel?
Michael Press – an archaeologist Visiting Scholar at the Borns Jewish Studies Program at Indiana University, with experience working in Israel who tracks archaeology in the area – said it’s a combination of ideological beliefs and lack of knowledge of international law.
Scholars are “not generally aware of the legal issues involved”, Press said, and archaeologists who work in Israel “tend to be less interested in legal and ethical issues, more conservative politically, and more pro-Israel”.
Israel’s Civil Administration, a governing body in the West Bank, is responsible for issuing permits to conduct digs in the occupied territories, including those enjoyed by Pfann, Summers and any others working at Qumran.
The Civil Administration operates under a notorious lack of transparency. Its director’s identity is not publicly available and there is no public list of artefacts from the West Bank in its possession.
Press said the Civil Administration gives permits to theologians and biblical archaeologists with “questionable qualifications”.
Ghattas Sayej, a Palestinian archaeologist who has worked for both the Palestinian Department of Archaeology and the Civil Administration from 1992 to 1994, said his time working with the governing body was the “worst of [my] archaeological career”.
The Civil Administration’s officers work with impunity and support of the Israeli military, Sayej said, and international law is disregarded. It is a “destructive machine and has nothing to do with archaeology. It is a tool to the occupier and the Israeli army to achieve whatever they wish,” Sayej added.
Sayej concluded by encouraging archaeologists to consider the implications of their actions.
Support beyond art
The MB’s support of settlements extends beyond archaeology. The organisation gave $10,000 in 2015 to Ohr Torah Stone Institute of Israel (OTSI), an educational initiative that allows Jewish people to study Jewish holy texts in a “Zionistic, intellectually-stimulating and open environment”.
While the MB’s tax filings list the organisation’s address in New York, OTSI’s website lists a mailing address in Efrat, a Jewish-only settlement in the West Bank, south of Jerusalem.
Hobby Lobby also cosponsors “Passages,” a programme that takes Evangelical Christians to Israel and the occupied territories in order to reinforce support for Zionism.
Passages mimics the Taglight-Birthright programme, which aims to drum up support for Israel among the Jewish diaspora.
Hobby Lobby and the MB did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on their settlement support.
As the MB prepares to open its doors in November, it doesn’t appear that cooperation with Israel will decrease.
Press, the scholar who tracks archaeology in Israel, said it’s long been in the country’s interest to present itself as the steward of biblical history and “its association with the Museum of the Bible follows that model”.