The Israeli government has launched an investigation to determine if the Biden administration violated any international laws, including the Oslo Accords, when it sent a historic artifact to Palestinian authorities last month.
The probe was prompted after a spoon dating back 2,700 years was sent from the United States to the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities on Jan. 5, in what the U.S. State Department’s Office of Palestinian Affairs said was “the first event of such repatriation” by the U.S. to the Palestinians.
Israel’s Heritage Minister Amihai Eliyahu’s office said the legality of the repatriation “is being examined by the archaeology staff officer with the legal counsel, which will examine all aspects of the matter, including the Oslo Accords that the U.S. has signed.”
It is not immediately clear what impact, if any, a review by the ministry’s legal counsel could have. It is unlikely Israel could confiscate the artifact, but it could enact policy to affect future repatriations.
The artifact — an incense spoon made of ivory — is believed to have been illegally taken out of the West Bank and was later purchased by New York billionaire hedge fund manager Michael Steinhardt
It was one of 180 artifacts seized by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in late 2021 as part of a deal with Steinhardt to avoid prosecution.
According to court documents, Steinhardt bought the ivory cosmetic spoon in 2003 from Israeli antiquities dealer Gil Chaya for $6,000. The artifact had no provenance — paperwork detailing where it came from and how it had entered the dealer’s inventory — but Chaya said the object was from the West Bank town of El-Koum, which is under Palestinian Authority control.
Dozens of Steinhardt’s surrendered artifacts have already been repatriated to Italy, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, Jordan, Libya and Israel.
The spoon was the only item repatriated to the Palestinians among the collection — and a historic first for the U.S.
Another artifact in Steinhardt’s collection — a “Red Carnelian Sun Fish amulet (that) dates to circa 600 B.C.E.” — is believed to be taken from the same town as the spoon but remains missing, according to the DA’s office. It will be repatriated to the Palestinians, the office said.
The repatriation coincided with the first weeks of Israel’s new government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The artifact’s return is the latest clash between Israel and the Palestinian governing body of the West Bank, underscoring how archaeology and cultural heritage are intertwined with their competing claims of the territory.
“Any artifact that we know that it comes out illegally from Palestine, we have the right to have it back,” said Jihad Yassin, director general of excavations and museums in the Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry. “Each artifact says a story from the history of this land.”
The ministry operates within the Palestinian Authority, the government of parts of the West Bank that was established as part of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.
Agreements between Israel and the Palestinians, such as the Oslo Accords, were supposed to include coordination on issues including archaeology and cultural heritage.
Many of the agreements have unraveled as the two sides often feud. Israel also operates in the West Bank and has disputed claims over heritage sites.
American authorities returned 28 objects to Israel last year.