The rich archaeological and architectural heritage of Palestine has suffered from alarming destruction, deterioration, and negligence. In addition to the devastation of many archaeological sites that date back thousands of years and the disappearance of artifacts, changes occurring at an unprecedented pace—and most often not congruent with heritage preservation—have affected historic urban centers, vernacular rural settings, and natural landscapes. This has been the result of inadequate legislation since the British Mandate, Zionist conquest of the land, Israeli dominance, urban sprawl, and Palestinian Authority shortcomings. However, in the last few years a new awareness of the importance of heritage protection has become evident, and steps towards this end, though not sufficient, have been undertaken.
Due to the weakened hold of the Ottoman Empire over its provinces in the nineteenth century, the wealth of historical sites in the Holy Land/ Palestine attracted the covetous interest of treasure-hunting explorers and of religious and scientific societies, encouraged by the colonial drive of the European powers. The unregulated excavation, acquisition, and sale of artifacts (relics, icons, coins, ceramic pieces, stoneware) led the Ottomans to attempt to assert control by issuing increasingly more stringent legal instruments (Antiquities decrees of 1869, 1874, 1884, 1906) concerning excavation rights and ownership of immovable and movable findings. According to the 1906 decree, all antiquities found in or on public or private lands were state property and could not be taken out of the country. However, the Ottoman legislation did not define the nature of “antiquities” and was unable to prevent transgressions.
As soon as they occupied Palestine the British authorities paid particular attention to the supervision of activities related to antiquities and issued an Antiquities (military) Proclamation in 1918. In 1929, an Antiquities Ordinance was adopted and was amended several times afterward. The Ordinance is still in force in the Gaza Strip; the 1966 Jordanian Antiquities Law (applicable to the West Bank) and the 1978 Israeli Antiquities Law (enforced by Israel in East Jerusalem) do not substantially depart from the 1929 Ordinance. Using the topographic mapping of Palestine that was conducted by the Palestine Exploration Fund (1871-1878) and its own investigations, the Mandate issued in 1929 a “Schedule of Historical Monuments and Sites” providing a list of around 2,800 main sites (ruins, towers, caves, sanctuaries, mosques, churches, and so on) from prehistoric and historic periods. (The schedule was updated in 1944, and around 200 sites were added to the list.)
In a sense, the British Mandate era can be described as the era of antiquities preservation; Mandate authorities created a government supervisory department, protected existing sites, regulated excavations through professional licencing, and established the Palestine Archaeological Museum, also known as the Rockefeller Museum). However, it is difficult to estimate the loss brought about to the Palestinian heritage by two legal provisions of the Mandate law: it reversed the 1906 Ottoman legislation by giving the holder of a licence to excavate a “fair share” of the finds, and it permitted a trade (including exportation) of antiquities through licenced dealers. Another main deficit of the Mandate Law (and its Jordanian and Israeli variations) is that it has defined “antiquities” (and hence what is worthy of protection) as essentially “any object produced or modified by human agency earlier than the year 1700 A.D.” The Law deliberately excluded from its protection thousands of structures and features that constitute Palestine’s vernacular and traditional built environment. The Mandate authorities were guided by western aesthetics that favored the static past of a Holy Land detached from its living traditions and practices. In the Old City of Jerusalem, for example, the restoration of the walls of Jaffa Gate to the original early Ottoman scheme showed the predisposition of the British colonial authorities to recreate earlier forms of Palestine, ignoring later contributions.
Much more devastating than some aspects of the Mandate’s antiquities policy, was the Mandate’s sponsoring of the Zionist project, which has been an ongoing disaster for the Palestinian people and their land. The Nakba left irreversible scars on the landscape of what became Israel. In the process of establishing Israel, Zionist militias systematically cleansed and destroyed more than 400 Palestinian villages and towns, during which they also destroyed or expropriated hundreds of shrines and sacred places around which social practices, traditions, and seasonal festivals had evolved. As an expression of identity politics and collective memory, the Palestinians’ material and immaterial heritage continues to be targeted.
During its rule over the West Bank (1948–1967), the Kingdom of Jordan attempted to preserve sacred heritage, especially the renowned sites in Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem, and Jericho. British Mandate era trends continued, such as the “unity of style” in restoration and the preference to the monumental and the sacred over the secular and earthly structures. The most emblematic projects during this period were the comprehensive restoration of the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock (Jerusalem), the restoration of Khirbat al-Mafjar/ Hisham’s Palace (Jericho), the clearance of the Mamluk and Ottoman structures adjacent to the Ibrahimi Mosque (Hebron), and the clearance of the Manger Square in front of Bethlehem Nativity with its Ottoman and earlier archaeological layers. The Jordanian authorities in consultation with Egyptian experts carried out most of the restoration operations of the 1950s; the results reflect priority given to aesthetic values at the expense of memory, living traditions, and other values.
Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the June 1967 war and continued the destruction of Palestinian landscape and built environment. Both Antiquities Laws (the 1966 law in force in the West Bank and the 1929 law in force in Gaza) were adopted by the Israeli occupying forces and amended several times by the “civil” administration through military orders. Israel used archaeology as a state ideology apparatus to fabricate "facts on the ground”; its implementation of the law excluded thousands of structures and features of Palestine’s vernacular and traditional built environment. After 1967, Palestinian heritage components and sites were either destroyed outright or expropriated. For example, the Moroccan and al-Sharaf neighborhoods in the Old City of Jerusalem were destroyed to create the Western (Wailing) wall plaza and the “Jewish Quarter.” The military orders of the period granted permission for archaeological excavations and allowed the sale of antiquities to collectors, a further degrading of the cultural heritage.
After signing the Oslo Agreement with Israel in 1993, the PLO revived the 1929 and 1966 laws, ignoring the Israeli military orders that amended them. In accordance with the terms of the Oslo agreement, the occupied West Bank was divided into three areas: Area A (about 18%), which includes most of the populated towns and villages and falls under the civil and security control of the Palestinian Authority; Area B (about 22%), which includes a buffer zone around Area A and falls under Palestinian Authority civil administration and Israeli security control; and Area C (60%), which falls under Israeli civil and security control. The consequences of this division on cultural heritage have been far-reaching and profoundly detrimental. First, Area C includes thousands of archaeological sites that have neither serious management nor firm inspection; finds can be easily looted and sold to Israeli collectors. Second, the division of the occupied territories into three zones of differentiated sovereignty has resulted in the concentration of massive construction in Area A and an unchecked urban sprawl that have encroached over the historic centers and archaeological sites. Third, the Palestinian Authority has not prioritized the protection or the restoration of heritage; it has proposed no heritage legislation and has dedicated few if any resources to heritage preservation.
Another aggravating consequence brought by the dynamics of the Oslo Agreement has been Israel’s destruction (2002) of important portions of the historic centers of Nablus, Hebron, and Bethlehem and the Tegart forts (British Mandate administrative centers in the 1930s). In the Gaza Strip, some of the most precious historical sites, dating back thousands of years, have been gravely damaged not only by repeated Israeli bombardments but also by construction over sites (for instance the Mamluk Barquq Fort in Khan Yunis) and from government neglect. Examples of the latter include the Anthedon Harbor in northern Gaza that goes back to the Assyrian, Roman, and Greek eras from 1200 B.C. to A.D. 324; and Tallat Um ‘Amir, which hosts a third century Christian monastery, Saint Hilarion, in Nussayrat.
The creation of the Palestinian Authority on parts of Palestine created an environment for agencies and institutions to take action to protect cultural heritage. These include governmental bodies such as the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, semi-governmental agencies such as the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee and the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation in Bethlehem, and nongovernmental organizations such as Riwaq Centre for Architectural Conservation and the Welfare Association (both in Ramallah). These institutions have planned and implemented conservation strategies and tactics to protect Palestinian heritage.
Since 1993, many historic buildings, villages, and towns throughout the West Bank have benefitted from intensive restoration, rehabilitation, and revitalization programs. Huge restoration and regeneration projects have been undertaken for the historic centers of Bethlehem, Hebron, Jerusalem, Nablus, and Jenin as well as many historic centers identified by Riwaq as being among the fifty most significant historic centers in Palestine (a list that includes Birzeit, al-Taybeh, Dahariyya, Hajjah, Deir Ghassaneh, Abwein, Jama‘in, Aseera al-Shamaliyya, Rantis, Beit Iksa, and Jaba’). In Gaza, apart from small projects carried out by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Iwan Centre for Architecture Heritage in Gaza, Riwaq, and the Ecole Biblique, little has been done to restore cultural heritage. In the first two decades of the twenty-first century, the Palestinian Authority proposed additions to the World Heritage List, and two proposed sites were awarded the status of heritage of universal value: the Nativity Church of Bethlehem and the cultural landscapes of the village of Battir, about 6 kilometers west of Bethlehem.