Israeli forces on July 20 carried out an operation to retrieve a Byzantine-era baptismal font that they said was stolen from an archeological site 20 years ago. In response, a Palestinian authority called the act of removing the font from a Palestinian town an act of theft and a “war crime.”
The font, believed to have been used in a 6th-century church at the archeological site near Bethlehem where it was uncovered, weighs some eight tons and is believed to be one of only three of its kind.
Video released by the PLO Department of Public Diplomacy & Policy shows the font being carted out of Bethlehem on a flatbed truck under cover of darkness.
Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian authorities have reported exactly where the font was retrieved from, but Palestinan media said the font was taken from the town of Tuqu, about an hour south of Bethlehem.
While Israeli authorities hailed the font’s “retrieval,” Palestinan authorities contended that the operation was an act of theft. The question of who is in charge of archaeological sites in the region and how they are managed is very complex, presenting multiple legal and practical issues.
“Israel’s theft of a baptismal font dating back to the Byzantine era from Bethlehem overnight is an abominable act of thuggery and cultural appropriation,” Hanan Ashrawi, head of the Palestinian Department of Public Diplomacy and Policy, said in a statement.
“A hallmark of Israel’s system of colonial occupation and oppression has been its disdainful attempts to erase Palestinian presence, culture and heritage, including the illegal appropriation and theft of heritage sites and artifacts,” she added.
Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Lutheran pastor and president of Bethlehem’s Dar al-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture, told CNA that in his view, Israel has been “stealing” Palestinian cultural heritage since 1967.
“This piece [belongs] under international law to Palestine. It has to be returned,” he asserted in comments to CNA.
“It might be good to put it in a Palestinian museum, maybe in Bethlehem so as to avoid that something like this will happen again.”
For their part, Israeli authorities hailed the acquisition of the baptismal font as an archeological win. It has reportedly been returned to the Tel Tekoa archaeological site where it was originally found, in an Israel-controlled area of the West Bank.
“This is an important and exciting moment,” Hananya Hizmi, head of the Archaeological Unit at the Civil Administration, told The Times of Israel.
“We have succeeded in returning a unique archaeological relic after years of searching.”
U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu in January proposed a two-state peace plan for Israel and Palestine, which includes an independent Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. While Israel has strongly backed the U.S. proposal, the scheme was not welcomed by the Palestinian Authority in part because it would involve annexation of Palestinian territory.
Following the announcement of the plan, the Catholic bishops of the United States encouraged Israel and Palestine to “negotiate directly” with each other and agree on a common resolution for peace.
Both the US bishops and the Holy See have long supported a two-state solution, respecting the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to “live in peace and security.”