When an Archaeological ‘Find’ Can Evict Palestinians From Their Home

Mahmoud Bisharat lives with his family in a tiny West Bank village called Humsa al-Tahta, located above the Hamra checkpoint in the Jordan Valley. Last January, he was surprised to receive an order informing him that he was living in an archaeological site.

He was instructed to immediately destroy a number of buildings he owned in order to stop damaging the antiquities. If he didn’t cooperate, the order stated, he would be arrested or face a police complaint. “It was the first time I had heard that there are antiquities there, and my family has been here for decades,” he tells Haaretz. “My great-grandfather lived here.”

About two months after he received the order, which obliged him to destroy the well, olive trees and concrete casting around the structures, Bisharat was called in to the police station in the Ma’aleh Efraim settlement. They questioned him about the structures, but mainly about the well, which he said had been renovated 15 years ago by the Palestinian Authority.

“The [Israeli] Civil Administration has previously destroyed structures we have built, but the claim that it is because this is an archaeological site is new,” Bisharat says, stressing that the homes were built decades ago. The area where Bisharat lives was included in an archaeological survey conducted in 1972. “And if there are antiquities here, why did they come here in the past with heavy equipment to destroy buildings?” he wonders. “Isn’t that called destroying antiquities?”

At the end of the questioning, the police told him that a court date would be set.

Israel issued 118 demolition orders and warnings to stop destroying antiquities for structures built on archaeological sites in the West Bank in 2019, according to data from the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, known as COGAT. That figure represents a 162 percent rise within two years – the number of such orders in 2017 was 45, and went up to 61 in 2018.

Demolition orders for structures in Beit ‘Or al-Fouqa in the South Hebron Hills, May 2020.Meged Gozani

Last year, the regular mix of demolition orders was joined by a new player: the order to remove recently-built structures. While other demolition orders allow for a petition, a hearing and even an appeal, this new order gives residents just 96 hours to present a building permit. The Civil Administration started with enforcing this demolition order in areas designated as archaeological sites. According to COGAT figures, 15 such orders were given in 2019; seven led to demolitions. These orders were in addition to the demolition orders and warnings.