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Archaeologists Hope to Reach Accord in Mideast

The authors of this op-ed, scholars at USC and UCLA, created the Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group to determine what archaeological material is disputed and to formulate recommendations for policymakers.

Archaeology needs to be considered carefully in future peace negotiations because of its symbolic importance and the economic potential of tourism to ancient sites.

This op-ed was first published by UCLA Today Online.

By Lynn Dodd and Ran Boytner

DO THE BOMBS, bullets and rockets that continue to kill and maim Israelis and Palestinians mean the peace process is doomed? The ferocious violence of late has given Israeli and Palestinian leaders an excuse to walk away from the negotiation table, putting the most recently imposed timetable for peace in jeopardy. But there is cause for hope.

Beyond the glare of news camera lights and outside the halls of government, Israelis and Palestinians have taken matters into their own hands. Groups of experts are working together to create the ideas and seek out the information on which a final peace agreement might be based.

This is true for some of the core issues — Jerusalem and refugees. It is also true for archaeology. The discipline is deeply imbedded in the conflict and culture of the region. For Israelis, it is a major source of scientific evidence for their claims to ancestral biblical lands. For Palestinians, archaeology raises concerns about sovereignty — they want sole control of all archaeological material recovered inside the borders of a future Palestinian state.

Balanced against the desires of both sides are the dictates of the Hague Convention and international law. If these are applied to the final peace agreement, Israelis will need to repatriate thousands of objects they believe were produced by their ancestors.

Archaeology needs to be considered carefully in future peace negotiations because of its symbolic importance and the economic potential of tourism to ancient sites. But neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority has engaged in significant preparations for negotiations concerning archaeology.

To fill this void, we created the Israeli-Palestinian Archaeology Working Group, comprised of leading local experts who represent the interests of their respective sides. Our purpose is to determine what archaeological material is disputed and to formulate recommendations for policymakers. We have the support of the U.S. Institute of Peace, our respective universities (USC and UCLA) and private donors.

Using concepts from the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement, the group recommends that archaeological heritage removed since the 1967 war from within the borders of the future Palestinian state (largely the West Bank and Gaza) should be returned.

However, we recommend that this repatriation be delayed by five years after signing in order to enable the completion of documentation, research and scientific publication of repatriated artifacts. We also recommend that research access to sites and artifacts be guaranteed to scholars regardless of their nationality or cultural identity.

Finally, we recommend that Jerusalem — with its great symbolic importance to Christians, Muslims and Jews throughout the world — be specially protected. The archaeological heritage of greater Jerusalem must be considered as a single, homogenous historical unit, and preservation of Jerusalem's cultural heritage must supersede national boundaries.

The ancient cultural heritage of Israel and Palestine is important not only to those two peoples as they struggle to achieve peace, but also to many outside the region. If no plan is made and archaeology's symbolic value is ignored, ancient sites and artifacts will remain a source of contention, and the prospect of an enduring peace will fade dramatically.

Dodd is a lecturer in religion and curator of the Archaeological Research Collection at the University of Southern California. Boytner is director for international research at UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

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