Thursday, November 20, 2008

Shared Problems

Coin of Herod the Great as seen tonight on Ebay going for $9.95 before tax and shipping.

The current issue of National Geographic spotlights the trade in illegal antiquities that is flourishing in the West Bank. The piece is worth checking out for the photos, but also for the explanation of the process by which the cultural loot makes it to market. As it turns out, the Persian Gulf isn't only to blame for purchasing a large part of the ancient treasure on the black market, it also provides a kind of laundry service for Israeli dealers. The objects are smuggled out of the West Bank to the Gulf, whence they return to Israel with official export licenses -- in other words, ready for legitimate sale.

The disastrous state of the Palestinian economy and the patchwork legal and security framework, we're told, render this state of affairs all but inevitable. The PA's official and the Israeli Antiquities Authority archaeologist attached to the IDF in "Judaea and Samaria" seem resigned. Political and military imperatives weigh against enforcement of the the 1978 Antiquities Law or the PA's own rules -- which are what exactly? And what is the status of the Israeli Antiquities Law in the territories? Apparently, you need an export license to transfer antiquities from Hebron to East Jerusalem; so said the Israeli courts in Ruidi and Maches v. Military Court of Hebron.

Indeed the situation seems chaotic. But I would argue that traffic in illegal antiquities in the territories isn't only a product of the breakdown of the peace process and the dearth of the Palestinian economy. It's also related to the curious, confusing Israeli stance on the entire issue of antiquities. Today Israel countenances an enormous amount of illegal excavation and sale within its 1967 borders. By one count, 11,000 of the 14,000 sites within the Green Line have been looted. The root cause is often related to a simple contradiction in policy. The Antiquities Law effectively nationalizes any artifact that surfaces. They're all state property. And yet, the antiquities trade is legal -- whereas in many neighboring nations, it's not. With strong demand from museums (some internal) and collectors large, small, and sometimes powerful (see Moshe Dayan, Yigal Yadin, and Teddy Kollek), pressure to increase supply is constant. You might get the idea that the anarchic West Bank is the perfect playground for rich collectors. Ironically, the dubious legitimacy of an Israeli export license may attract more of them.

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