Sunday Times June 24 2001

BOOKS

The man who dug too deep

PALESTINE TWILIGHT:
The Murder of Dr Albert Glock and the Archeology of the Holy Land
by Edward Fox
HarperCollins £19.99 pp268

ANDREW LYCETT
 

"He who controls the past commands the future," suggested George Orwell. In the field of archeology, politicians from Napoleon to Hitler have understood that whoever interprets the runes establishes the enduring historical myths. And no modern state has been more aware of the political potency of pots and stones than Israel.

Albert Glock knew this in 1980 when he retired as director of the Jerusalem-based Albright Institute (which oversees American archeological research in the Holy Land) and went to run a new institute of Palestinian archeology at Birzeit University in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Trained as a Lutheran pastor in his native America before becoming a "biblical" archeologist, he had become disenchanted with the way his field was being hijacked to support preordained theses - not just by Zionists bolstering links with and even claims to eretz Israel, but also by his co-religionists, who sought to lend credence to the more literal biblical stories.

In the process he felt that evidence of the Palestinians' lengthy stewardship of their land had been ignored. However, trying to establish a Palestinian archeology in the charged atmosphere before and during the intifada was frustrating. And in 1992, this stubborn mid-westerner's sense of fair play led to his murder while visiting a favoured female assistant. Edward Fox has seized on this tragedy not just to investigate a surprisingly little-known killing, but also to explore often neglected themes in the Middle East story. He was helped by having at the centre of his narrative the restless character of Glock (whose personal diaries were at his disposal).

Glock was born of Swiss stock in the mid-West; his pursuit of the truth had led him, early in his career, to split from the ultra-fundamentalist Missouri wing of the Lutheran church. Turning to biblical archeology, he tended to modern, less literal interpretations of the Old Testament story, seeing the Israelites as natural successors of the indigenous Canaanites rather than heavenly inspired invaders from Egypt.  Fox's overview of the West's fascination with the Holy Land is factual and lively - from the legends that followed Empress Helena's visit to Palestine in AD325,  to the study of biblical archeology, initiated by 19th-century Protestant scholars seeking to reveal exactly what happened in the Near East by applying scientific techniques, including archeology and textual analysis of the Scriptures.

To get a feel for his subject, Fox enrolled as a student at Birzeit. His book provides compelling insights into Palestinian society under Israeli occupation. Birzeit had a policy of non-co-operation with Israeli academic institutions. Glock's strategy for his new department was to concentrate on ethno-archeology, which would stress the continuity of Palestinians' everyday life. But he found local villagers wary.

Archeologists also brought attention from the Israelis and put an end to lucrative building scams. Inevitably, Glock was suspected of being an Israeli or American spy. Could this have led to his killing? Fox coolly assesses the various suspects. Perhaps it was the Israelis through their undercover West Bank death squads. This theory is based on the idea that Israel feared the political consequences of Glock developing a Palestinian archeology and accompanying myth of statehood. But surely Israel would not jeopardise relations with America over this? It simply had to deny him the visa he went to renew every three months in Cyprus. Maybe his demise related to the family of Glock's favourite assistant, Maya, who felt her reputation had been sullied by an affair which seems to have been more in his mind than hers. Or had he been a victim of factional university politics? He had feuded with Hamdan Taha, now director of the Palestine Antiquities Authority, whom he had refused a teaching post. Fox dismisses these options and suggests that Glock fell foul of the Islamic movement, Hamas, which was determined to halt the peace process. Wanting to scare off foreign support for "moderate" Palestinians, it aimed to show that the West Bank was in a state of anarchy.

More personally, Hamas may have felt Glock's secular approach ignored Palestine's Islamic past. Fox backs this theory with a dubious confession by a Hamas activist in an Israeli prison. It refers to Hamas's responsibility for killing a doctor at Birzeit in 1991. Glock fitted the description, but the date was a year out. And surely his American nationality would have been mentioned? Fox's conclusion remains possible but unconvincing. Nevertheless, I heartily recommend this book. Fox's assured delving has laid bare many usually obscure strata in the complex structure of the Arab-Israel conflict. With his command of detail and pithy style, he strikes the right tone in a politically sensitive field. He chronicles dispassionately Israeli heavy-handedness in the West Bank, particularly over archeological research. But he has the humanity to record his delight when he visited west (or Israeli) Jerusalem and felt the tensions of the teeming West Bank slip away as he tucked into a familiar bagel with salmon and cream cheese. At the end, Mortimer Wheeler seems a better guide than Orwell: "Archeology is not a science, it's a vendetta."

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