JERUSALEM // An exhibition of artefacts at the Israel Museum claims to shed new light on the Judaean king Herod, whose renowned extravagance is perhaps outdone only by his vilification in the Bible.
Palestinians say it simply shows the continuing violation of their rights to the cultural and archaeological heritage buried in the soil of their occupied lands.
The exhibition features frescoes, limestone sarcophagi and some 250 other items of the ruler installed by the Roman empire, who reigned for 33 years until his death in 4BC at the age of 70.
"It's stolen," said Rula Maayah, the Palestinian Authority's minister of tourism and antiquities. "This is part of the Palestinian heritage, but they think they have the right to claim it even though they're on our land, occupying it."
After seizing control of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel's archaeologists, religious Jews in search of Biblical relics and even soldiers launched a flurry of formal and informal excavations in these Palestinian territories.
Israel's continuing archaeological activities in the territories violate its obligations under international law as the occupier of these territories, Palestinians and liberal Israeli archaeologists say.
But on a deeper level, the fight over the area's abundant cultural and archaeological heritage represents a broader competition over who controls political narratives. By sheer force of its military and organisational prowess of its universities, museums and entrepreneurs, Israel usually wins, building tourist sites and pursuing digs on occupied areas that critics say sometimes espouse questionable archaeological methods and neglect non-Jewish history.
Palestinians see the removal of Herod's possessions from his West Bank fortress and tomb of Herodium as but one example of archaeological exploitation by Israel. Not only have they been stripped of control over land needed to create their own state, but also over the troves of antiquities underneath from the Ottoman, Roman and Greek empires, and the Biblical kingdoms under David and Solomon and the Canaanites before them, each of which left deep archaeological footprints over the course of thousands of years.
"The most bothersome issue is that we don't know exactly what kind of materials the Israelis took and how they are keeping it or what has happened to it," said Nazmi Jubeh, a Palestinian archaeologist who lectures at the West Bank's Birzeit University and Jerusalem's Al Quds University.
Because of lax Israeli laws that allow for a flourishing trade in antiquities, which is banned in other countries in the region, and looting by both Israelis and Palestinians, he said "not thousands, but millions of artefacts" have vanished from Palestinian areas.
"If they discovered in a tomb, say, thousands of oil lamps, they can't keep all of them so they sell to dealers, either Israeli or non-Israeli dealers, because this is legal under Israeli law. But to our understanding, this is totally illegal because they are selling things that don't not belong to them," Mr Jubeh said.
Many of the artefacts do not relate to Jewish history, he said, and are sold at souvenir shops in Jerusalem's Old City or shipped abroad. Tourists can even declare historic items such as coins or figurines while leaving from Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International Airport.
Others may end up on display in Israel.
Advertising itself as containing "the most extensive holdings of Biblical and Holy Land archaeology in the world", the Israel Museum has showcased Herod the Great's relics to highlight his penchant for building grandiose monuments and a complex relationship with the Roman Empire.
Its officials have dismissed accusations that the exhibition violates international law. "The Israel Museum is cultural institution. We don't take sides politically," the museum said in statement, adding that about one per cent of objects in its permanent exhibition come from the occupied Palestinian territories.
It cited the interim Israel-Palestinian peace accords of the early 1990s as entrusting Israel "with the care and protection of archaeological sites of historical, cultural and religious importance in the West Bank" until "a future final agreement determines and clarifies" responsibility for ownership of the region's archaeology.
This allowed it to receive on loan Herod's artefacts from the Civil Administration, a wing of the Israeli defence ministry that oversees civilian activities, including archaeological work, in the 60 per cent of the West Bank that Israel directly administers.
The museum said the items would be returned to the Civil Administration when the exhibition ends on October 5, but its possession of the items considered a breach of the laws of war by liberal Israeli archeologists and Palestinians. Citing agreements such as the 1954 Hague Convention, concerned with safeguarding cultural property during war, they say these forbid belligerents from conducting archaeological excavations on foreign soil except under emergency circumstances.
Under the auspices of the Civil Administration, excavation has been carried out for many reasons other than emergency. A spokesman said the authority controlled hundreds of West Bank archaeological sites, although it did not have details of the items it has on temporary loan to institutions in Israel.
The statement said the transfer of items such as those in the Herod exhibition to the Israel Museum did "not require coordination with the Palestinian Authority".
Yet Yonathan Mizrachi, an Israeli archaeologist formerly at its Antiquities Authority, said the international community held a different position. There was a general consensus that artefacts in occupied territories must not be removed from those territories.
This consensus was put to the test four years ago when Israel allowed the Dead Sea Scrolls to be exhibited temporarily at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada. This provoked official Palestinian protests, to no avail. Palestinians contest Israeli possession of the ancient manuscripts because their were discovered in the 1940s and 50s in an area that became the West Bank. The scrolls were placed in the Rockefeller museum in East Jerusalem when Israel captured the territory in 1967.
Similar logic applies to Herod's relics from the West Bank, Mr Mizrachi said.
"The Israel Museum is talking about this as if it's like America and England loaning objects to each other, but without acknowledging the occupation," he said.
In many ways, Israel's occupation has spurred a haemorrhaging of artefacts from the territories.
A spike in unemployment because of the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, restrictions on Palestinians' movement, and construction of Israel's separation barrier triggered a surge in illegal excavations by Palestinian "'subsistence looters' who dig as a way of surviving poverty", according to a 2008 article in the Jerusalem Quarterly of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies.
Grave-robbing incidents tripled in 2001, which the article said had fuelled illicit trade into Israel and beyond. The following year, authorities discovered 15 tonnes of stolen antiquities - including marble pillars and a Jewish coffin carved from stone - at a home in the Israeli city of Caesarea.
Recently, Palestinian officials have sought novel ways to assert more control and recognition over historical sites in the territories they want for their state. In 2011, they joined the United Nation's educational, scientific and cultural organisation, or Unesco, and that year won a vote in the world body to have Bethlehem's Nativity Church and its pilgrimage listed as a World Heritage Site.
Mrs Maayah, the culture and antiquities minister, said the Palestinians had drafted a list proposing 20 other sites for Unesco World Heritage status. This would help strengthen Palestinian claims to the sites, some of which Israel directly administers, she said.
One of those proposed locations is Herodium and its surrounding landscape.
"They not only did an illegal excavation there - they illegally took the items into Israel, and we want them back," Mrs Maayeh said.