Occupied East Jerusalem – At the entrance to the Rockefeller Archaeological Museum, an old floor plan maps out the rooms that make up its collection.
Artefacts from various historical periods were brought here during the British Mandate, with the museum founded in 1930. The majority were unearthed during British excavations at the turn of the century in historic Palestine.
The museum was established with the philanthropic contributions of American oil magnate John D Rockefeller, whose name it later acquired. But the print on the museum’s floor plan features its original name: Palestine Archaeological Museum.
Parts of the museum’s collection, particularly the rare books stored in its archaeological library, are set to be moved next year from the museum’s premises in East Jerusalem to a new location in West Jerusalem, a decision sanctioned last month by an Israeli court.
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Activists and archaeologists are worried that this could create a dangerous precedent and allow for more artefacts to be removed from the occupied territories and brought to Israel, in contravention of international law.
The museum features an important archaeological library, including thousands of volumes. Some of the oldest books date back to the 16th and 17th centuries, including accounts from pilgrims and scholars who travelled to the region, while others from the 19th and early 20th centuries cover antiquities sites in the region.
The collection has been expanded since 1967, when Israel illegally occupied East Jerusalem and took over the museum. Since then, the museum itself, located just outside the Old City walls, has been part of the Israel Museum and administered by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), which is the governmental body in charge of regulating excavations and promoting archaeological research.
The authority’s headquarters, now located at the Rockefeller Museum, are about to be moved to a new building that will be part of the Schottenstein National Campus for the Archaeology of Israel, for which construction is estimated to be completed next year.
The 35,000sq-metre campus will contain the largest archaeological library in the Middle East. The IAA plans to move the library currently housed at the Rockefeller Museum to the new location in West Jerusalem.
But Emek Shaveh, an NGO composed of a group of archaeologists and community activists advocating against the politicisation of archaeology in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, objected to the move and filed a petition against it last May, arguing that it is against international law to remove cultural property from an occupied territory.
The Israeli Supreme Court, however, rejected the petition and said the IAA is responsible for the artefacts and books stored at the museum, and therefore has the right to transfer them.
When Israel unilaterally annexed East Jerusalem, it imposed Israeli law onto its territory – a move that has never been recognised by the international community. The court effectively ruled that Israeli law overrides international law in East Jerusalem.
“Until the political [question] is solved, nobody knows for sure what the status of the artefacts is,” Yonathan Mizrachi, executive director of Emek Shaveh, told Al Jazeera.
Because we are not excavating, we depend on Israeli publications from Jerusalem. And while we may be able to rely on the data, we can't rely on the interpretation, which is always political, focused on biblical archaeology.
Mizrachi said the decision effectively sanctions Israel’s rights over the museum’s contents and creates a dangerous legal precedent.
In practice, he said, other artefacts have been removed from the museum, particularly over the past 10 years, including a collection of coins.
“The petition was about the library because we knew for sure that the library was about to be transferred. But we also knew that many artefacts were removed from the collection of the museum to the rest of Jerusalem,” he told Al Jazeera, adding that they were likely brought to storage spaces belonging to the Israel Museum.
The Rockefeller Museum itself has a number of empty cases, but it remains unclear whether the objects have been removed temporarily for exhibitions or otherwise.
The IAA did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for comment, and has previously denied that it intends to move anything other than books to the new location, adding that the latter will be able to be stored in better climatic conditions at the new location.
Hani Nur el-Din, a professor of archaeology at Al Quds University and director of its Jerusalem archaeological research unit, said that the move has a symbolic significance.
“This is the base for the IAA and the base for archaeological excavations within East and West Jerusalem, the West Bank and every part of Palestine and Israel,” Nur el-Din told Al Jazeera. “It’s one of the main symbols that Israel has political power in Jerusalem and the West Bank.”
Meanwhile, he said, his institute at Al Quds University, the only Palestinian university in Jerusalem – located in its periphery and divided from the city by the separation wall – is not able to conduct excavations in the city due to lack of access.
“We can only do analysis [and] lectures,” Nur el-Din said, adding that this makes it difficult for Palestinian archaeologists to provide a counter-narrative.
“Because we are not excavating, we depend on Israeli publications from Jerusalem. And while we may be able to rely on the data, we can’t rely on the interpretation, which is always political, focused on biblical archaeology,” he added.
Maryvelma Smith O’Neil, director of ARCH, the Alliance to Restore Cultural Heritage in Jerusalem, said the court’s decision constitutes an “ominous subordination of international law”, but also represents yet another example of the vulnerability of Palestinian heritage in Jerusalem.
ARCH works with local partners to identify and protect vulnerable aspects of Palestinian cultural heritage – both physical and non-physical – in Jerusalem.
“It is another act of memoricide against the multicultural history of the region,” Smith O’Neil told Al Jazeera. “We know what is going on, but this is a dangerous legal precedent. If you’re going to start moving objects, what stops you from going into a monastery and taking manuscripts?”
Mizrachi of Emek Shaveh said the act of transferring and moving the objects must be seen within a wider context.
Emek Shaveh has denounced the way sites such as the “City of David” archaeological park in the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Silwan have been used to further political goals and dispossess Palestinians. According to the NGO’s most recent report, the recognition of more than 160 Jewish holy sites helped to cement state control over them, while sites of significance to Muslims or Christians have suffered neglect.
“The way archaeological sites have been presented, the way the national park is being used as a political tool … It’s all part of the big picture about how important it is that this land cannot be recognised as exclusively belonging to one culture or one nation,” Mizrachi said.