Israel to give back artifacts removed from Sinai in '67 Some argue return of objects to Egypt is occurring hastily

March 21, 1993|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Staff Writer Danna Bethlehem in Jerusalem contributed to this article.

CAIRO -- A quarter-century after the sands of the Sina divulged their past to the latest occupier, those secrets will return to Egypt.

Israel has agreed to give back antiquities that were removed from the desert peninsula after Israel invaded the Egyptian territory in the 1967 Six-Day War. Trucks carrying 40 crates with the first of an estimated 3,000 artifacts will make the delivery to Egypt at the Gaza Strip border Wednesday.

"We're very pleased," said Mohamed Ibrahim Bakr, head of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. "We consider it a friendly gesture."

The return of the artifacts -- including pottery jars, pieces of glass, cloth, jewelry, statues and burial items -- was stipulated in the 1978 Camp David accords, which called for Israel's withdrawal from the Sinai Peninsula over the next four years.

The ownership of the items was not in dispute, said Efrat Orbach, an official of the Israeli Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem.

"We had them for safekeeping," she said. "International law permits excavation if there is a fear that the artifacts will be robbed or damaged."

But Israel has been in no rush to give them back, despite repeated Egyptian demands. An agreement signed in January with an Egyptian delegation stretched the delivery out over two more years to give researchers time to finish their studies.

Some Israeli archaeologists complain that even this timetable is too quick. "We carried out about 40 months of excavations in the Sinai, which means that, in theory, we need about 40 years to process all the material," said Eliezer D. Oren of Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva.

"On average, one excavation season, which lasts one month, requires at least one year of research."

Others in Israel also are grumbling.

Eliyahu Ben-Elissar, a member of the Knesset and a former ambassador to Egypt, complained that Israel had failed to exact a payment for the return of the antiquities.

"The agreement was altruistic and unnecessary," he said. "We should have at least received something in return. We gave them a free lunch."

On the Egyptian side, such complaints are grating to those who say Israel should never have taken the items in the first place and should have returned them sooner.

Not all the items were removed for study. Moshe Dayan, head of the Israeli army during the 1967 war, was notorious for confiscating archaeological treasures for his personal collection from captured territory in Syria, Gaza, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt.

Among the items to be returned this week are three Byzantine tombstones from Dayan's collection, which the Israel Museum bought from his widow after Dayan's death in 1981.

"They are right to get [the tombstones] back," said Yacov Meshorer, chief curator of the Israel Museum, although he noted that Dayan had bought the stones and that they are of minimal historic value.

Dayan did no excavation in the Sinai, Mr. Mosherer said, but like other collectors, Dayan bought items that had been stolen from archaeological sites.

Mr. Bakr, the Egyptian official, soft-pedals the criticism.

"The word 'stole' is not the right word," he said. "I'm against using those words between neighbors. I know these excavations take a lot of time."

He credits the Israeli archaeologists with having made careful excavations and with conducting a valuable study of the artifacts.

The value of the artifacts themselves is a matter of some question. Mr. Bakr said most of the pieces are important. He said they will be presented in a special display at the Cairo Museum and "will cover the whole history of the Sinai -- prehistory until today."

The delegation that negotiated the agreement with Israel

returned with fragments of letters found near the Red Sea that were possessed by the Sultan Saladin, who ousted the Crusaders from Jerusalem in 1187.

"These letters are unique and very well-preserved," he said. Other objects date back 4,000 years to Pharaonic periods. There are stone writings, statutes, glassware and jewelry from Greek and Roman times, he said.

But Gunter Dryer, of the German Archaeology Institute in Cairo, concedes that "this is not really sensational material."

Its value, he said, is overestimated.

"It's more a question of prestige" to the Egyptians, he said.

"There's not a lot of great treasures," agreed another Western archaeologist, who declined to be named. "Mostly minor things."

But although Egyptians complain that there was no emergency threat to the artifacts that justified their removal by the Israelis, other archaeologists say the items would not have been properly excavated if left to the Egyptians.

Israel has allotted $1 million to its researchers to finish and publish their studies of the artifacts.

Dr. Oren, in Israel, said that researchers excavated 1,300 sites in the Sinai over 10 years and that much of the material has not been fully studied.

"We excavated massive amounts of artifacts, and many years are needed in order to process them," he said.

He said he does not oppose the return of the objects to Egypt but wants more time to study them. He complained that the agreement does not provide for further cooperation between Israeli and Egyptian archaeologists, or give Israeli researchers access to study the artifacts in Egypt.

"I wanted the agreement to be part of an ongoing process of archaeological ties," he said. "We want cooperation with Egypt."

Mr. Bakr said such cooperation may come if political relations between the countries warm.

"These [agreements] are not an island in a sea," he said. "Everything will be accomplished in its right time."

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