A draft agreement on how archaeological sites and artefacts should be allocated in the event of an Israel–Palestine peace deal was received positively last week by Israeli archaeologists in Jerusalem.

There are nearly 7,000 archaeological sites in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, of which about 1,000 have been excavated, according to a database compiled as part of the work on the agreement. Finds include artefacts such as the Dead Sea scrolls. But the future disposition of these sites has not been discussed in the framework of talks between Israelis and Palestinians, even though such excavations are closely tied to both national identities and to historical and political claims to the territory.

Under the draft agreement, control of sites and artefacts would be determined by territorial sovereignty, and artefacts removed since Israel gained control of the West Bank in 1967 would be handed over to the new state. It also recommends that the designated world-heritage site containing the Old City of Jerusalem be enlarged to include important sites nearby. Archaeology here would be governed by a special regime in which both Israelis and Palestinians would participate. However, Israeli scholars would be allowed five years to complete study and publication of finds in such areas before their repatriation.

In the case of specific items of archaeological heritage that have unique symbolic value — such as the Dead Sea scrolls — the agreement recommends that both sides consider loan and exchange pacts.

Debby Hershman, a curator at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, welcomes the draft but says that it does not guarantee cooperation. "Countries Israel has signed peace agreements with — Jordan and Egypt — and to which artefacts have been repatriated, have consistently refused to loan these objects to Israeli museums," she says.

The scrolls are a particularly emotive issue. Uzi Dahari, deputy director of the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem, likes the agreement, but says that the scrolls must remain in Israeli hands. Nazmi al-Jubeh, one of the Palestinian members of the working group, disagrees. "We do not accept the argument that the scrolls are part of Israeli heritage. Jewish heritage is part of our heritage and our history as well." International treaties, al-Jubeh notes, usually make territorial sovereignty and not cultural affiliation the determining factor in deciding who controls sites and artefacts.

Al-Jubeh will present the draft to Palestinian scholars and officials at a public meeting similar to the one held in Israel, and he says it has been well-received by those who have already seen it in the Palestinian community.