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Bulldozers in the Night February 29, 2000
by Kristin M. Romey

While the Israeli public's attention has been focused upon the ongoing archaeological dispute at Jerusalem's Temple Mount (see "Jerusalem's Temple Mount Flap," March/April 2000), archaeologists charge that the "willful destruction" of a site in northern Israel crucial to our understanding of human evolution has gone virtually unnoticed by local and international press.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) in a press release has charged the Sea of Galilee Drainage Authority (KDA) with causing "serious and irreversible damage" to Gesher Benot Ya'aqov, "one of the rarest prehistoric sites in the world." The 780,000-year-old site, located on the banks of the Jordan River in northern Israel, features a remarkable level of organic preservation that archaeologists have not encountered at any other contemporary site in Europe or Asia, Harvard prehistorian Ofer Bar-Yosef told ARCHAEOLOGY. "The amount of information [from preserved wood and seeds] that can be drawn from such a site is enormous," he added. Gesher was first discovered in the 1930s and has been the site of several excavations since then that have provided archaeologists with crucial information about how and when Homo erectus moved out of Africa, most likely through the Levantine corridor that includes Israel.

The KDA had proposed dredging a stretch of the Jordan near Gesher to alleviate regular flooding of farmland in the adjacent Hula Valley. According to Ofer Merder, head of the Prehistoric Section of the IAA, discussions between the two authorities began in July 1999. The IAA subsequently granted the KDA permission to carry out work in limited areas around Gesher under the supervision of an IAA inspector, a situation which evidently frustrated the KDA . "At the end of December, [the Drainage Authority] entered the site at nighttime and conducted work in all areas, willfully breaking the law," said Merder.

Damage was significant, archaeologists say, with several hundred meters of the 1.5-mile-long site obliterated by bulldozers and flint tools and hippopotamus bones scattered about. "Strata which contain fossil remains, manmade stone artifacts, and a lot of organic material were all destroyed," claims Na'ama Goren-Inbar, a prehistorian at Hebrew University in Jerusalem who excavates at Gesher, "We will never be able to scientifically study this material because it is all out of context."

Eitan Sat, director of the KDA, has asserted that the IAA refused to compromise on the issue of dredging in the Gesher area. The Drainage Authority performed the dredging only after all possibilities of dialogue with the IAA had been exhausted, he said, adding, "They were preventing me from doing my job." The director of the IAA, General Amir Drori, has appealed to the Israeli government to remove Sat from his position.

Meanwhile, unlike the events at the Temple Mount, the destruction of Gesher has gone all but unnoticed by the Israeli media and public. "We tried to get the story on the front page of newspapers," said IAA archaeologist Gideon Avni, "But this is part of the sociology of Israel. The interest in biblical archaeology is greater than that for earlier or later periods." Bar-Yosef agrees. "I am quite sure that is this was a matter of a biblical- or a Christian-period site, many more voices would have been raised in protest."

© 2000 by the Archaeological Institute of America