The Biblical archaeologists digging deep to justify Israeli occupation of West Bank

Evangelical Christians, who link the return of the Jewish people to the Palestinian Territories with the coming of the messiah, are using archaeology to further the cause

Members of the Associates for Biblical Research, diging in an excevaiton sight, near Shilo, West Bank.
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A day of archaeological digging by the Associates for Biblical Research always begins with a reading of the Bible. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life”, repeated the group of 20 Evangelical Christians, mostly Americans.

It is barely 5am in Jerusalem, and team members are boarding a bus heading to Tel Shiloh, in Area C of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control. There, they say, may lie the remains of the tabernacle – the shrine believed to have hosted the Ark of the Covenant.

The dig site is bathed in a mild morning light. In a camel-coloured cowboy hat and sunglasses, always flashing a bright smile, team leader Dr Scott Stripling fits the Hollywood image of an archaeologist. His work, however, is far from conventional.

A proud evangelical, he and his team believe the Bible is to be read literally, and it serves as a textbook for their research.

“Is the Bible a reliable historical document? Some Israeli colleagues disagree, but I believe so,” Dr Stripling says, also arguing that many archaeologists are biased against the “holy word”.

“On the one hand, we have the Old Testament and, on the other hand, archaeological artefacts. Is there a verisimilitude? That’s what we expect.

“But I don’t walk around with a Bible in one hand and a shovel in the other.”

It is the third year of the excavation in Tel Shiloh and Dr Stripling hopes to find new clues to confirm that the elusive tabernacle was once located here. Last year they discovered a ceramic pomegranate, a fruit symbolically associated with the holy shrine.

The pieces unearthed in Tel Shiloh are brought back to Jerusalem each day, before being analysed in collaboration with the Israeli antiquities authorities in a process critics say is disturbingly opaque. In mid-May, the Supreme Court ruled that Israel is not obliged to release information about archaeological digs in the West Bank, rejecting an appeal by two non-government organisations.

Members of the Associates for Biblical Research, at their excevaiton sight, during the early hours of the morning, near Shilo, West Bank.
Members of the Associates for Biblical Research believe the Bible is to be read literally and it serves as a textbook for their research. Courtesy: Amnon Gutman

"Everything we find is stored in Israel and if a political solution to [the Palestinian-Israeli] conflict is found, the people in charge of the territory will then have access to the objects," Dr Stripling says. "But I'll be dead before that happens," he says with a laugh.

The interreligious relationship between Israeli Jews and American Evangelicals is sometimes labelled opportunistic. A subset of the Evangelical community believes that the return of the Jewish people to the land of their ancestors is necessary for the return of the messiah and the end of times, as set out in the Bible. Israeli authorities, however, are searching for allies to support their military occupation.

Emeline and Perry Ginhart, a newly-wed American couple, hope to make more discoveries that will help to support the authenticity of their messianic vision of Christianity. They visited Tel Shiloh for their honeymoon, paying thousands of dollars to be allowed to take part in the dig.

They spend long hours clearing the tiny area of dirt they are in charge of under the scorching sun.

“By helping Israel, we are helping our cause. Our Creator gave us these lands to take care of,” Mr Ginhart says.

By helping Israel, we are helping our cause

Leah Tramer, one of the few Israelis on the team, is a former research assistant at Tel Aviv University and a self-declared "former leftist". She says her views changed after a particularly violent attack by Palestinian militants.

Since then, she has been working for the University of Ariel, in a large Israeli West Bank settlement. She helps American Evangelicals who come to dig. To them, Judea and Samaria, the biblical name for the West Bank, is a natural extension to the Israeli state.

"There is nothing more exciting than doing research related to the Bible," Ms Tramer says. "It is wonderful that Christians are helping us to recover our past."

Archaeological finds are used in a political and ideological context as theoretical evidence for the importance of Jewish heritage over Palestinian.

"Israel uses archaeology as a political tool in East Jerusalem and the West Bank to try to justify its presence. This explains why they are working with evangelicals, who support the same narrative," Yonathan Mizrachi, director of the Israeli NGO Emek Shaveh, told The National.

“Evangelicals don’t do research for the benefit of the local community, but for their own benefit and to support the occupation.”

Many other sites beside Tel Shiloh have been controversial. The City of David in East Jerusalem's Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan is, according to biblical references, the original site of Jerusalem at the time of King David – about 3,000 years ago. It is now a popular pilgrimage site for evangelicals from all over the world.

It is the third year of the excavation in Tel Shiloh and last year the team discovered a ceramic pomegranate, a fruit symbolically associated with the holy shrine. Courtesy: Amnon Gutman
It is the third year of the excavation in Tel Shiloh and last year the team discovered a ceramic pomegranate, a fruit symbolically associated with the holy shrine. Courtesy: Amnon Gutman

Local residents said excavations on the site have damaged about 15 houses.

Mazen Aweida, 48, points to thick cracks running along the walls of his home, half of the kitchen sink has collapsed and the bedroom floor has curled.

“We’re miserable,” he says.

"I have young children and I'm afraid debris will fall on them. It stresses me out a lot," the father of seven whispers, glancing at his little boy sitting next to a gaping crack running from the floor to the ceiling.

Many residents are convinced that archaeological digs are part of a broader strategy to drive Palestinians out and take control of their land.

The City of David Foundation, an Israeli association, declined a request for comment, but it has previously denied responsibility for the deterioration of Palestinian homes.

"Biblical archaeology is like a fairy tale. The Bible is not meant to be understood literally," a European specialist who has worked in the Middle East for decades but who asked not to be named, tells The National.

“The Israeli army must stop the archaeological massacre in the occupied territories.”

At 1pm, the sound of a shofar, a traditional Jewish horn, echoes through the rocky hills of Tel Shiloh to mark the end of the day’s dig. But those taking part will be back tomorrow in search of the holy tabernacle, despite the fact they have yet to find anything decisive.

"The absence of proof is not the proof of absence," Mr Stripling says.