An ivory spoon dating back 2,700 years that was handed over to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities on January 5 by the US has sparked a dispute with Israel’s new far-right government over cultural heritage in the occupied West Bank.
The dispute brings into focus the political sensitivities surrounding archaeology in the Middle East, where Israelis and Palestinians each use historical finds to support their claims over the land.
Israeli Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu ordered officials to examine the legality of the US government’s repatriation of the artefact to the Palestinians.
The artefact was seized in late 2021 by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office as part of a deal with the New York billionaire hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt.
It was one of 180 looted artefacts purchased by Mr Steinhardt that he surrendered as part of an agreement to avoid prosecution.
American officials handed the spoon over to the Palestinian Authority in what the US State Department’s Office of Palestinian Affairs said was “the first event of such repatriation” by the US to the Palestinians.
Dozens of Mr Steinhardt’s surrendered artefacts have already been repatriated to Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Israel.
The spoon is the only artefact ever to be repatriated to the Palestinians.
Its return came weeks after the installation of Israel’s new government, which is composed of ultranationalists who see the West Bank as the biblical heartland of the Jewish people and inextricably linked to the state of Israel.
Mr Eliyahu’s office said last week that the legality of the repatriation “is being examined by the archaeology staff officer with the legal counsel, which will examine all aspects of the matter, including the Oslo Accords that the US has signed”.
The case underscores how archaeology and cultural heritage are intertwined with the competing claims of the Israelis and Palestinians in the decades-long conflict.
“Any artefact that we know that it comes out illegally from Palestine, we have the right to have it back,” said Jihad Yassin, director general of excavations and museums in the Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry.
“Each artefact says a story from the history of this land.”