Evening Standard

The killing of Dr Glock

Palestine Twilight: The Murder of Dr Albert Glock and the Archaeology of the Holy Land Edward Fox (HarperCollins, £19.99)

Reviewed by Robert Irwin
 

Nobody comes out well in Edward Fox's investigation into the circumstances of the murder of Dr Albert Glock. Certainly not Glock himself. Glock was an archaeologist who taught at the under-funded and dilapidated Palestinian University of Birzeit on the West Bank. He pioneered an archaeological methodology that concentrated not on the vanished glories of the medieval Arab caliphs, but on the everyday life of Arab villagers in the medieval and early modern periods. He wished to "challenge the dominant narrative of biblical archaeology, favoured by Israeli and western archaeologists, by demonstrating the persistence of ordinary Palestinian life in Palestine throughout the ages of history". Though his aims were admirable, his way of going about things was arrogant, rude, stubborn and reckless. He loved Palestine but not Palestinians and he seems to have gone out of the way to alienate most of his university colleagues.

On 19 January 1992 he was shot several times in the driveway of a friend by a young man. The killer, who wore jeans and covered his face with a kaffiyeh (the characteristically Palestinian black-and-white chequered scarf), swiftly disappeared, leaving no real clues as to his identity. It is possible that Glock was murdered by one of his colleagues, either because of a personal grudge or on suspicion of being a spy for the Zionists. However, most Palestinians believe that he was killed either by a member of Shin Bet, the Israeli General Security Force, or by an Arab collaborator operating under Israeli direction.

Possibly the Israelis wished to bring Glock's kind of archaeology, with its pro-Palestinian agenda, to an end or they hoped to spread alarm and mistrust in the West Bank in order to deter western academics and others from working with the Arabs. In the course of his investigations, Fox comes across innumerable examples of the ways the Israelis harried the Palestinians, ranging from petty bureaucratic humiliations all the way to outright torture and murder. However, there is no strong evidence that Glock was murdered by Israelis and there is, on the contrary, some evidence, though inconclusive, that Glock was killed on the orders of the military wing of Hamas, the militant Palestinian Islamic movement.

Those who believe in Hamas's guilt argue that Glock was killed because he was an American and in the hope that his murder might disrupt American-brokered talks between Palestinians and Israelis. It is possible, but there is no certainty in this territory of shadow and rumour.

Fox paints a bleak portrait of a land riven by suspicion, corruption and violence. Glock and his fellow excavators were suspected by Palestinian villagers of being spies or treasure hunters. It was also feared that the archaeologists might be preparing the ground for yet more Israeli land seizures. Glock's digs were regularly vandalised by greedy and ignorant locals who were totally indifferent to their historical heritage. On the other hand, Israeli archaeologists have operated on Arab lands as destroyers and looters. The primary aim of most Israeli archaeology is to uncover evidence of ancient Israel and, in so doing, confer some sort of legitimacy on the modern state. They have routinely ignored and dug through strata of Arab history. On the rare occasions that they have taken notice of Arab artefacts, they have spirited them away to Israeli museums. Middle Eastern archaeology is a political activity. It always has been and, as part of the background to his murder inquiry, Fox provides a fascinating history of biblical archaeology from the 19th century onwards.

Many writers of crime novels, including John Buchan, Agatha Christie and Jessica Mann have made use of archaeological settings. Jessica Mann has observed that such a milieu "offers several benefits: an exotic or unusual setting: an isolated or closed environment; a variety of characters, from professional archaeologists; and different cultures through which to comment on contemporary life or historical events".

What goes for fiction also goes for non-fiction. Glock himself wrote that, in a sense, the archaeologist operates as forensic investigator: "The process of excavation is analogous to an autopsy (post-mortem) in which the pathologist attempts to determine the cause of death and the effects of disease. Assume for a moment that there was either objection to performing a postmortem or simply that this process had never been done and the culture never produced a trained pathologist. The fact of death, particularly if violent, would become an unverified story, perhaps growing to a legend."

Edward Fox, in his turn, as he investigates Glock's violent death and the legends about it, is aware that the archaeological dig provides a potent metaphor for his own patient sifting of the evidence. Fox picks his way through layers of accusation and counter-accusation, and advances solutions to the crime that are, at best, provisional and speculative. However, the investigation into the murder of a single individual has served him as an Ariadne's thread that takes him and his readers deep into the maze of Israeli and Palestinian society. His narrative, which is eloquent, empathetic and balanced, gives the reader a vivid sense of what it is like to be a Palestinian in the 21st century. Palestinian Twilight should be read by anyone interested in the Middle East today.