HCJ 6679/15 Qaryut Village Council Head v the Commander of IDF Forces in the West Bank

Petition Submission Date: 8.10.2015

The archaeological site Khirbet Seilun (Tel Shiloh) is located in the Palestinian village of Qaryut, in the heart of the West Bank. Settlement there began during the Middle Bronze Age and peaked during the Early Arab and Byzantine Periods. Several Byzantine churches were built, some of which became mosques after mass conversions to Islam. According to a late Judeo-Christian tradition, this is biblical Shiloh, the location of the Tabernacle.

In 1978, the military commander issued seizure order 1/78, which facilitated an archaeological dig on Qaryut’s lands, which then became the settlement of Shilo. Later on, the Israeli government expanded the settlement’s area of jurisdiction to include the archaeological site. The military seizure order – a tool meant to be used for urgent military needs, and which does not constitute expropriation of the land from its owners – has no expiration date, although it is designed to be a brief measure. No military use was made of the seized land since 1978.

In 1992, the military commander decided to include the Khirbet Seilun/Tel Shiloh archaeological site within the boundaries of the settlement of Shilo. As a result, and due to a 1970 military order preventing Palestinians from entering Israeli settlements, Palestinian residents of the West Bank were barred from reaching Khirbet Seilun, which served as a ritual place for hundreds of years. The site’s inclusion in the Israeli settlement place it under the authority of the Binyamin Regional Council, which allocated management of the archaeological site to the private Mishkan Shiloh Association – The Center for the Study and Development of the Cradle of Settlement in the Land of Israel.

The head of the Qaryut village council petitioned the High Court together with Yesh Din and Emek Shaveh to demand reversal of the decision to include the archaeological site within the area of jurisduction of the Binyamin Regional Council and to immediately end management of the site by the Mishkan Shiloh Association.

The petition stated that the council and organization managing the archaeological site “establish the Khirbet Seilun/Tel Shiloh site as part of the Jewish tradition although, as aforementioned, the site includes – in purely archaeologically terms – mainly remnants of churches and convents and other towns that existed in the area, blurring and even obliterating the role of other cultures and religions in the region.” The petition also claimed that all the activities organized by the organization are designed solely for the use of the Jewish public. Not a single event catered to the local Palestinian population, whose land was expropriated. The “Migdal Ha’Roeh” tower describes the history of mythological Shiloh as portrayed in the Bible, but does not mention any findings from the area, which are primarily Christian and Muslim.

The petition emphasized that international law (primarily the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict adopted at The Hague in 1954) determined that there is clear precedence that cultural properties be handled by authorities that represent the occupied territory – which applies to the case of the Qaryut village. This approach was also recognized by several High Court decisions.

Following the petition, the military commander instructed that Palestinians be allowed to enter the site. However, the State claimed in its response that the Staff officer of Archaeology is regularly involved in management of the site, and that the site displays findings and remnants from various era and religions. The State Attorney claimed that the site “bestows the heritage of the site and its unique importance,” but without prioritizing any one religious heritage. “Naturally, and in light of the importance of the site to the Jewish religion, emphasis is placed on its connection to the Jewish people, but that should not prevent any person from visiting the site and taking in its antiquities,” said the State in its response.

In their response, the petitioners claimed that “the site has one dominant and central character, with a single national-religious character,” and that the State is shirking its responsibility “to the occupied territory, its history and the scientific findings of the site…this is the explicit outcome of the transfer of full responsibility of the site to political entities with a professed national-religious political agenda who practice exclusion on many levels.”

Following a hearing in the High Court of Justice in November 2016, the State announced its intention to sign a new agreement between the Civil Administration and the Binyamin Regional Council designed to increase the Civil Administration’s involvement in supervising the site. The State also announced signs would be installed in three languages at the site, including Arabic.

On July 8, 2019 the Court rejected the petition entirely. Regarding the demand to reverse the inclusion of the archeological site in the jurisdiction area of the Binyamin Regional Council, the justices ruled that this demand is unfounded, and according to their reasoning, given that Palestinians are now permitted to enter the site (as of January 2016), its inclusion in the Binyamin Regional Council’s area of jurisdiction does not present any difficulties. Regarding the claim that the site “has one dominant and central character: [Jewish] national-religious” and excludes other traditions, and that the changes undertaken following the petition are not substantive changes, the justices recognized that the “Manner in which the site is currently managed focuses on the biblical Tabernacle in Shilo”. And yet, the justices accepted the State’s position that the site does not “offend other traditions”, adding that the Court would not intervene in this matter.

Finally, the Court rejected the petition’s demand to cancel the agreement to transfer management authority of the site from the Civil Administration to the Binyamin Regional Council, a body with a “clear political agenda” (as stated in Yesh Din’s response of November 9, 2016), which transferred management authority to the Mishkan Shiloh Association. The justices accepted the State’s position and ruled that the agreement in question does not reflect the authorities discharging its responsibility to govern and supervise the site, especially given the changes applied to the site since the petition was filed.

Petition Status: rejected