Hunt for scrolls causes new Mideast suspicions Israelis search, Arabs grumble

November 15, 1993|By New York Times News Service

JERUSALEM -- As if Israelis and Palestinians did not have enough to fight about on the ground, they found a new dispute yesterday beneath the surface.

Sixteen teams of Israeli researchers fanned out across the Judean Desert yesterday in a hunt for ancient religious scrolls that may be buried in caves and dry riverbeds near the Dead Sea -- similar to the famous manuscripts that were found in the same area four decades ago and that constitute one of the great archaeological discoveries of the century.

This desert storming, expected to last several weeks, was planned several years ago and just happens to be taking place now, the Israeli Antiquities Authority insisted.

But Palestinian archaeologists were suspicious.

They sensed an Israeli treasure hunt on lands in the West Bank that may fall under Palestinian authority in a few weeks as part of Israel's agreement with the Palestine Liberation Organization. Any Dead Sea scrolls are Palestinian property, they said, demanding that Israel stop what they described as last-gasp plundering.

"The French did the same thing just before they left Algeria," said Professor Nazmi Jubeh, an archaeologist and a technical adviser to the Palestinian delegation to the Middle East peace talks. "All of these activities are illegal."

Nonsense, Israeli officials replied, saying that they have no intention of calling off a search that goes to the core of Jewish heritage. "This survey was planned long before and has no TC relation to the political situation," said Efrat Auerbach, a spokesman for the Antiquities Authority. "We're doing everything according to international codes."

In a sense, the dispute may be a tempest in a clay pot.

No one even knows if there are any more containers with scrolls to be found in wilderness caves that once provided refuge to members of ancient Jewish sects. The original discoveries, involving about 800 manuscripts dating as far back as 200 B.C., were all made between 1947 and 1956, and nothing is known to have been turned up since.

"If you ask me, the chances that they will find something now are one in a hundred," said Yaakov Meshorer, chief curator for archaeology at the Israel Museum.

It is also not clear whether the area of the search -- centered yesterday on Qumran, where some of the original Dead Sea scrolls were discovered -- will fall within the Palestinian self-governing authority that is supposed to take shape in four weeks, starting in the city of Jericho and the Gaza Strip. Qumran is eight miles from Jericho, and while it could fall under Palestinian jurisdiction, no one really knows. But whether there are more scrolls or not, the dispute has opened up the larger question of what will happen eventually to archaeological finds in the territories, from ancient synagogue floors in the West Bank to sarcophagi in Gaza.

The "declaration of principles" signed by Israel and the PLO Sept. 13 makes no reference to archaeology except by implication: a provision that a special committee on economic and development issues will also take up "any other programs of mutual interest." Thus far in the negotiations, archaeology has taken a decided back seat to more pressing matters, like security guarantees and prisoner releases.

But the issue is not likely to disappear, and claims surrounding the Dead Sea scrolls graphically highlight the problems.

Under the 1954 Hague Convention, signed by Israel, an occupying power must protect antiquities that it finds in the occupied territory and may not remove them. Palestinians say that this applies to the scrolls, along with any artifacts dug up in Gaza and the West Bank since those territories passed from Egyptian and Jordanian control into Israeli hands during the 1967 war.

Nearly all of the scroll portions -- considered invaluable by researchers looking for insights into the history of Judaism and the origins of Christianity -- are kept in the Rockefeller Museum in eastern Jerusalem, which Jordan controlled until 1967. Other texts are displayed in Jerusalem at the Shrine of the Book, part of the Israel Museum.

In demanding that they be given the scrolls, the Palestinians cite as a precedent Israel's agreement to hand back to Egypt all artifacts found in the Sinai wilderness, also captured by the Israelis in 1967 but returned as part of the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries.

A good reason why not, the Israelis reply, is that there is no comparison. Sinai was unquestionably part of Egypt before 1967, but Gaza was only under Egyptian administration and the West Bank similarly was under Jordanian administration. And therefore, Israel says, neither territory was ever officially part of a sovereign nation, and so there is no country to which to hand anything back.

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