STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Somewhere near its heart, the Middle East conflict is a fight over history. Each side has a story to tell about who was first on the land, and each competing view of history becomes part of the argument over who should rule it now. So it's become a sensitive matter that Israel is conducting archaeological digs on the West Bank, land captured by Israel in 1967 and sought by Palestinians for a future state. The archaeology is a military operation and sometimes a secretive one. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.
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DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Here's one archaeological site in the West Bank - the ruins of a village from the 2nd century B.C. When I visited on a recent morning, Palestinian workers were laying cement to reinforce a row of stones. They're working for the Israeli military. Benny Har-Even is the Israeli military's deputy archaeologist.
BENNY HAR-EVEN: Our work is mainly to preserve the history of the area.
ESTRIN: The Israeli military is in charge of archaeology in most of the West Bank. The military archeologists see their job as a race to save history.
HAR-EVEN: We have 3,000 archaeologic site that we know of, and we need to take care of them, to protect them, to try to avoid bandits of destroying them. So we are a professional person.
ESTRIN: The status of the West Bank and the artifacts found there is supposed to be negotiated in peace talks. Until then, military archaeologists and Israeli academics continue to dig in the West Bank. But some of what they do there is not made public by the army, according to Israeli archaeologist Rafi Greenberg. He's part of a left-wing group of archaeologists critical of the digging.
RAFI GREENBERG: So they do not publish the list of excavations or the list of excavators or the list of finds or the location of their storeroom. That's all kept as a state secret.
ESTRIN: His group accuses Israel of using the digs to strengthen its control of the West Bank. The group sued in court to find out which Israeli academics were excavating there. The Israeli judge said that information would remain classified to protect archaeologists from boycotts by colleagues around the world. Greenberg says the secrecy speaks volumes.
GREENBERG: If it's wrong, then don't do it. And if it's right, then tell everybody about it.
ESTRIN: The army archaeologists say they prevent important finds from being lost to a thriving market of Palestinian antiquities thieves. Former Palestinian antiquities chief Hamdan Taha says Israeli archaeologists are the ones who are acting like antiquities thieves, digging in occupied land under a cloak of anonymity.
HAMDAN TAHA: It provides a legal framework for open looting. It is turning the role of archaeology from scientific recovery of the past to treasure hunt.
ESTRIN: Palestinian archaeologists do conduct their own digs and collaborate with international archaeologists, but they don't cooperate with the Israeli military. Taha rejects an Israeli argument that Palestinian archaeologists are not as qualified as their Israeli counterparts.
TAHA: This is a cheap argument, and I don't want to respond to this because this is exactly the mentality of occupier - dominance.
ESTRIN: Taha does acknowledge problems. Some historical buildings have been demolished by Palestinians in the West Bank, and Palestinian archaeology is a young field. And the Palestinian Authority still hasn't replaced him since he retired in 2014. But he says even during times of violence, Palestinians didn't let archaeological sites meet the same fate as sites in Syria and Iraq destroyed by ISIS. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, the West Bank.
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