July 12, 2018

In News Surrounding Israel by The Friends of Israel

IDF: Patriot missile intercepts incoming drone from Syria

The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday said a Patriot missile intercepted a drone approaching Israel from Syria, as sirens sounded in northern Israel and fragments from the downed UAV plummeted into the Sea of Galilee.

The rocket siren alert system was activated in the southern Golan Heights and northern Jordan Valley regions, and residents reported seeing a trail of smoke in the sky as well as hearing explosions.

The army said the drone “infiltrated from Syria toward Israeli territory” when it was shot down. It did not identify the operator of the unmanned vehicle.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

The Israel Police ordered all boats on the Sea of Galilee to dock due to “operational activity” after fragments from the drone fell into the water.

The incident comes just over two weeks after the IDF said it launched a Patriot interceptor missile at a drone that was heading toward Israeli airspace from Syria, prompting the incoming unmanned aerial vehicle to beat a retreat. The IDF did not identify the operator of the drone.

On Monday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman toured the Golan Heights, where he threatened Syria with a “strong response” should it violate a delicate decades-old ceasefire agreement in the region. Liberman’s warning came hours after Israeli planes reportedly bombed an air base in central Syria used by Iranian militia fighters in the latest confrontation between the countries.

Last year, the Israel Defense Forces used the Patriot missile defense system on at least three occasions in order to shoot down incoming drones from Syria.

In April 2017, a Syrian military drone was shot down by a Patriot missile. In September of that year, the American-made system also intercepted an unmanned aerial vehicle that was flown by the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group. And in November 2017, the military shot down another Syrian military drone that approached Israeli airspace.



Netanyahu departs for ‘very important’ meeting with Putin in Moscow

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu departed Israel on Wednesday on his way to Moscow, where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in the latest in a series of frequent summits between the two amid persistent tensions over the presence of Iran-backed fighters in Syria.

Calling the meeting “very important,” Netanyahu told journalists: “We will discuss Syria, we will discuss Iran, we will discuss Israel’s security needs.”

“I very much appreciate the excellent, direct contact I have with the president of Russia,” the premier added before boarding his aircraft at Ben Gurion Airport. “It is very important to the national security of the State of Israel.”

The meeting between the two comes days after Israel was blamed for a Sunday airstrike on a Syrian airbase near Homs thought to be used by Iranian militiamen and other Shiite fighters.

Jerusalem has also focused in recent days on keeping Syrian fighters out of a demilitarized zone on the Golan border as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and backed by Russian air power have been looking to take over the last pockets of rebel resistance in southern Syria.

Netanyahu is slated to land in Moscow in the afternoon and return to Israel early on Thursday.

Netanyahu said that after the meeting, he and his wife, Sara, have been invited to attend and watch the FIFA World Cup semifinal soccer match between England and Croatia, which he said would be “fascinating.”

Though Russia backs Assad and is allied with Iran, it has turned a mostly blind eye to frequent sorties attributed to Israel against Syrian and Iranian targets. Netanyahu has credited Russia’s willingness to tolerate Israeli air activity to his frequent consultations with Putin.

The two most recently met in Moscow on June 15. Shortly after that meeting, an airstrike in Syria attributed to Israel targeted an Iranian military base.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu met with Putin’s special envoy Alexander Lavrentiev and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin in Jerusalem to discuss “regional developments,” according to the prime minister’s office.

During the meeting, Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s position that it would “not tolerate a military presence by Iran or its proxies anywhere in Syria and that Syria must strictly abide by the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement,” his office said.

Israel has repeatedly vowed it will not tolerate any Iranian military presence in Syria and has carried out strikes against Tehran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Russia has reportedly agreed to keep Iranian troops a certain distance from the Golan border, but has called a complete Iranian withdrawal from the country “absolutely unrealistic.”

Some Israeli analysts interpreted Sunday’s attack on a T-4 airbase, deep inside Syria, as a signal to Putin that Israel was sticking to its guns regarding any Iranian presence in the country.

“The very fact of Iranian presence in Syria is, in our view, unreasonable. We are not prepared to accept Iranian presence in any part of Syria and, as I’m sure you’ve heard more than once, we will act against Iranian entrenchment in Syria,” Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday during a tour of the border region.

While Russia does not seem to have accepted Israel’s demand for Iran to be completely removed from Syria, it has agreed to force the Islamic Republic’s forces and proxies to leave the areas closest to the border with Israel. According to some reports, pro-Iranian forces would be required to stay 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from the border; others indicate that range would be set at 80 kilometers (50 miles).

“Regarding a retreat to 40 kilometers or 80 kilometers, it doesn’t matter. Therefore, the moment we see Iranian presence, we take action, and that is how it will continue,” Liberman said.

Liberman warned that Syrian troops who break the 1974 agreement that established a buffer zone between the countries would be targeted.

The buffer zone has become a de facto refugee safe zone with tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing a Russian-backed offensive to take back the southern region in recent weeks.

The defense minister added that Israel was not dismissing out of hand the possibility of some kind of normalization with the Assad regime in the form of opening the Quneitra Crossing between the two countries.

“I believe that we are far from that, but I am not ruling anything out,” he said.



Why the concern for UNRWA?

On Monday, seven former US ambassadors to the UN sent a letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo insisting that the administration restore full funding to UNRWA, the UN agency that funds so-called Palestinian refugees.

Since UNRWA was established in 1949, the US has given nearly $5 billion to the agency tasked with perpetuating refugee status among descendants of Arabs who left Israel in the 1948-1949 pan-Arab invasion.

In January, then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson informed the UN that the US was slashing its assistance to UNRWA by 50%, from $260 million to $130 million.

At the time, citing UNRWA’s support for terrorism and economic corruption, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley recommended ending US financial assistance for the agency outright.

The issue of UNRWA, and the US’s involvement with the group, hasn’t received much attention in the intervening months. But now that the former ambassadors have brought it up, it is worth taking a second look at UNRWA and considering whether they are right, and what their bipartisan position tells us about the bipartisan consensus that controlled US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians until President Donald Trump took office.

UNRWA and its supporters present the agency as an organization dedicated to supporting Palestinian refugees. But this is a lie.

UNRWA is a political warfare organization that deliberately perpetuates the misery of innocent people.

It indoctrinates them from the cradle to the grave to support and engage in terrorism and genocide against the Jewish state and its people. It exists not to help the descendants of Arabs who left Israel at its inception, it exists as a tool of political warfare in the never-ending war to annihilate the Jewish state. As then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser said in 1960, “If the refugees return to Israel, Israel will cease to exist.”

UNRWA’s distinctively non-humanitarian purpose is baked in. Refugees worldwide are helped by the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees. UNHCR targets its services to real refugees – people who meet the definition of the Refugee Convention of having lost their state home due to persecution. UNRWA targets its services to people of Palestinian descent it calls “refugees” for political reasons; fewer than 1% of the UNRWA refugees would actually meet the Refugee Convention definition.

UNHCR finds refugees and gives them help; UNRWA finds people who need help and makes them refugees.

The UNHCR is responsible for helping refugees find asylum and settle in another country. Today it cares for nearly 66 million refugees worldwide. It has one staffer for every 6,000 refugees.

UNRWA, in contrast, is responsible for preventing Palestinian refugees from gaining asylum or resettling anywhere. It is responsible for 5.2 million refugees and has one staffer for every 186 refugees.

Over the past 70 years, UNHCR has permanently resettled tens of millions of refugees. It found permanent homes for 189,300 refugees in 2016 alone.

UNRWA has resettled no refugees in its 69-year history.

It is now responsible for the fifth generation of descendants of the Arabs who left Israel in 1948-49.

Every dollar the US transfers to UNRWA is a dollar used to perpetuate this misery. And it is arguably a dollar spent in breach of US law. According to the US Law on Derivative Refugee Status, spouses and children of refugees can apply for derivative status as refugees. Grandchildren are explicitly ineligible for that status. But by funding UNRWA, the US funds an agency that has required the perpetuation of refugee status of the Arab refugees from 1948-49 for five generations.

For years, then-US senator from Illinois Mark Kirk tried to compel the State Department to reveal how many Palestinian refugees actually left Israel during the pan-Arab invasion. Due to his efforts, in 2013, the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved an amendment to the annual State Department foreign operations appropriations bill requiring the State Department to report how many of the 5 .2 million Palestinians on UNRWA’s rolls were actual refugees.

Rather than reveal the number, which is estimated to stand at 20,000, or 1% of the number UNRWA claims, the State Department classified the figure in 2015. It still refuses to release it.

Former president Barack Obama’s administration’s position was to accept UNRWA’s numbers as true. The Obama State Department insisted that any accounting for the actual number of refugees or attempt to remove the millions of “refugees” who have been Jordanian citizens for most of the past 70 years from its refugee rolls, would be detrimental for chances of peace.

That is, despite the fact that during the 2008 presidential race Obama said he did not support the Palestinian demand that UNRWA’s “refugees” be permitted to immigrate to Israel and, as Nasser said, cause Israel to “cease to exist,” his administration’s actual policy was to legitimize this position. By refusing to reveal how many Arabs who left their homes in Israel in the 1948-49 pan-Arab invasion of Israel receive support from UNRWA, Obama enabled the Palestinians to insist that more than 5.2 million people, all but 20,000 of whom have never stepped foot in Israel and have no ties to the country, should be permitted to enter Israel as citizens and so destroy the Jewish state.

UNRWA’s existential rejection of Israel’s right to exist is not the only reason it is a deeply problematic, indeed, toxic organization. On a daily basis, UNRWA personnel and facilities are used to advance the physical annihilation of Israel.

UNRWA schools and clinics in Gaza have been used repeatedly by Hamas to store missiles and rockets and to launch projectile attacks on Israel. Several of their employees are senior Hamas terrorists. In the past year and a half, two senior UNRWA employees in Gaza were elected to senior leadership positions in Hamas. Funding UNRWA funds Hamas.

As multiple researchers have copiously documented over decades, UNRWA schools indoctrinate Palestinian children to hate Israel and Jews and to seek their annihilation. UNRWA employees throughout the Middle East praise terrorists, praise Nazis, and call for the annihilation of the Jewish people. By funding UNRWA, the US pays their salaries.

This brings us to the seven US ambassadors and their letter to Pompeo.

Former UN ambassadors Thomas Pickering and Edward Perkins, who served under president George H.W. Bush; Madeline Albright and Bill Richardson, who served under president Bill Clinton; John Negroponte, who served under George W. Bush; and Samantha Power and Susan Rice who served under President Barack Obama, claimed in their letter that funding cuts “put into question the ability of UNRWA to continue to deliver education and healthcare services to millions of people.”

Oddly, they think this is a bad thing.

But it is a good thing.

Consider the case of Hamas terror master Suhail al-Hindi. Hindi was elected to a senior leadership position in the terror group in 2011 and re-elected in 2017.

During this entire period, Hindi worked as principal of an UNRWA high school and chairman of the teachers’ union for UNRWA schools in Gaza.

UNRWA only fired him from his position as principal in 2017. For six years the agency ignored the problem hoping everyone would forget or not notice.

Why do the former ambassadors want US taxpayers to support a school system run by the likes of Hindi? Then there are the clinics they express such concern for.

During the course of Hamas’s 2014 war against Israel, on July 31, a team of commandos from the Maglan unit entered an UNRWA clinic in Khan Younis to seal an attack tunnel that was dug out from its floor.

Three soldiers, St.-Sgt. Matan Gotlieb, St.-Sgt. Omer Chai and St.-Sgt. Guy Algernaty, were killed when the clinic exploded on top of them. Twenty other soldiers were wounded in the blast.

The IDF discovered afterwards that Hamas-UNRWA constructed the clinic not only as the starting point of an attack tunnel, but as a booby trap. Twelve barrels, each containing 80 kg. of explosives were built into the walls.

Why do the ambassadors wish to build more UNRWA clinics? This then brings us to the question of the seven former envoys’ motivation in writing the letter in the first place. The seven wrote that ending US financial support for UNRWA will have “national security ramifications for our closest allies, including Israel and Jordan.”

This is true enough. But at least in Israel’s case, those ramifications would be positive. The less money UNRWA has, the less damage it can do to the Palestinians and to Israel. With less money, UNRWA can teach fewer Palestinians that they should strive to become suicide bombers. With less money, they can build fewer booby trapped clinics and fewer attack tunnels under the floors of their examination rooms.

With less money, UNRWA becomes a less attractive option for millions of Arabs for whom accepting cradle-to-grave welfare payments from UNRWA has substituted work as an economic model. “Employed” on the UNRWA dole, they have been able to take low paying jobs as terrorists.

Obviously, as former UN ambassadors, the seven signatories know all of this. So obviously, they weren’t motivated to write due to some sort of deep seated desire to improve the welfare of the Palestinians. They were also clearly not motivated by genuine concern for Israel’s security, much less for the cause of peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Indeed, given what we know – and what they know – about UNRWA, it is impossible to attribute any positive justification to their actions. Rather, the only logical explanation for their decision to sign and send the letter to Pompeo is that they want to perpetuate US assistance to UNRWA because they like what it does. They think it is a good idea to doom Palestinians to perpetual misery and ensure that they will never, ever accept Israel’s right to exist in secure borders unmolested by war and terrorism and demonization.

That is, like UNRWA, the seven former senior diplomats were motivated by rank hostility to Israel. This is remarkable.

Power, Rice, Pickering, Perkins, Albright, Richardson and Negroponte represent the top tier of Washington’s bipartisan foreign policy clique. Together, they have played key roles in shaping US policy towards Israel for 30 years. And they like UNRWA.

Pompeo should thank them for their letter. He should thank them for reminding him to reconsider the administration’s position on the UN agency. And then he should follow Haley’s advice from January and end all US funding to UNRWA.

Furthermore, Pompeo should declassify the data on the actual number of Palestinian refugees and he should call for their cases to be dealt with by the UNHCR, without prejudice. And then he should announce that out of concern for the welfare of the Palestinians and in the interests of peace and regional security in the Middle East, the US believes the time has come to shut UNRWA down completely.



Israel’s first female soccer boss blazes a desert trail

BEERSHEBA (AFP) — The desert city of Beersheba in southern Israel may seem to have little in common with the gleaming capitals of Europe, but for the third year running its soccer club is to play in the UEFA Champions League.

The success of Hapoel Beersheba owes much to its pioneering female owner, Alona Barkat.

Barkat, who rarely misses her team’s games, will once again be one of the few females with a team in the competition.

Other women who have been involved in high-level soccer include Chelsea director Marina Granovskaia, nicknamed the London club’s “iron lady.” Chelsea did not qualify for the Champions League this year.

In France, Margarita Louis-Dreyfus took over ownership of France’s Olympique de Marseille club from her late husband in 2009 but threw in the towel in 2016.

Barkat became the first woman to own a professional soccer club in Israel when she bought Hapoel Beersheba in 2007 with the support of her husband Eli Barkat, a high-tech businessman.

She admits that she knew little or nothing about the game at the time.

She was also not familiar with Beersheba, having returned a few years earlier from a stay in the United States, where her husband made a fortune in high-tech, in partnership with his brother, outgoing Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

Hapoel Beersheba were at the time struggling in the second division and playing in a dilapidated stadium, a far cry from its glory days of the 1970s.

They returned to Israel’s premier league in 2009 and in 2016 won their first national title in four decades.

They repeated the feat in 2017 and 2018.

And while the soccer world has its eyes riveted on the World Cup being played in Russia, the small Israeli club will face Estonian champion Flora in their opening first qualifying round Champions League game in Tallinn on July 10.

At the beginning, “it was difficult, just like in any work you are doing,” she said during a recent team photo shoot at the renovated, ultra-modern Turner Stadium inaugurated in 2015.

“Every area where you come and you start working, it’s hard — and regardless of whether you are a man or a woman, it’s hard.”

Her reserved smile contrasted with the exuberance of the players gathered around her.

She says she had hoped in 2007 that the team would become national champions, but she also had her sights on wider issues.

Beersheba is the fourth-largest urban center in Israel, but it traditionally has not been the city that comes to mind when talking about the “start-up nation,” the phrase often used to describe the country’s success in the high-tech industry.

But over the course of recent decades, the ancient city which became a new home for Jewish migrants — mostly from North Africa — has grown to 200,000 residents and undergone a transformation.

Israel is seeking to reinvent the city as a center for cybersecurity and an incubator of industry talent.

It has a vibrant university and the Israeli army’s school of technology, and is in the process of rehousing the intelligence corps as the military sells off its high-value real estate in the crowded center of the country.

“The reason I came here (Beersheba) is because for me it was very important to emphasize that every person can succeed everywhere,” she said.

She said she considers Hapoel Beersheba as not only a soccer club, but also a bridge to bring together people of different religions and economic backgrounds.

Under her leadership, the club has invested heavily in local youth.

It sponsors four specialized centers for disadvantaged children who receive training from club staff.

Relations with dissatisfied supporters have also calmed noticeably, sports journalists say.

She downplays the significance of her position as a woman in an industry traditionally dominated by men.

“At first I’m sure some people didn’t know how to accept it,” Barkat, who is in her 40s, told AFP.

“But I think along the way people truly test you and want to know what you are doing and what message you deliver. At the end of the day, I think it’s not an issue anymore.”

She added: “I think every person should do what they want and they should do what their dreams are and try to fulfill them,” she said.

“And that’s what I’m trying to do and I hope the others will follow.”

Hapoel’s striker Ben Sahar said she “gives us everything we need. She lets us get on with our work and does a lot behind the scenes.”

“She was very successful in winning respect in this male environment,” he added.

On the question of how to reconcile work and family demands Barkat says that has not been a problem for her sons — aged 25, 22 and 17.

“I was very lucky: My three boys love their mother’s job,” she says.



Israeli spacecraft set for historic moon landing in coming months

The SpaceIL organization announced Tuesday that it will be sending a small, unmanned spacecraft to the moon in December, with an expected landing date of February 13, 2019.

It will be launched on a SpaceX missile from Cape Canaveral, Florida, which will release its history-making cargo 60,000 kilometers from the moon. The spaceship will go around the Earth in an ever-widening, elliptical orbit that will eventually enable it to cross paths with the moon.

At that point, it is supposed to fire its engines in order to slow down and get into a lunar orbit, eventually landing gently on the rocky surface.

“It’s a small, smart spaceship,” said SpaceIL CEO Dr. Ido Anteby. “It’s a meter and a half by two meters, and will  weigh 600 kg. at takeoff. Most of its weight is fuel, and when it lands it will [only] weigh 180 kg. It will be in contact with ground stations all over the world; we’ll be in radio contact with it throughout its trip.”

Its first task will be to plant an Israeli flag on the surface and then take still pictures and video. It is expected that the “mission” will wrap up in a mere two days.

Established in 2010 by three Israeli engineers, the nonprofit organization started building the four-legged machine about two years later. They were attempting to win the $20 million Google Lunar X competition for a non-government to land an unmanned spacecraft on the moon, take pictures and video, and travel 500 meters on, above or below the surface. In the event, they reached the finals, but at the end there was no winner as none had met the requirements and deadline in time – but they decided to “go for it” anyway.

The organization’s aim, besides making history by landing its craft, is “to inspire a generation along the way,” as noted on its website. They describe it as “a national mission” to use their story to create an “educational impact,” not only for Israeli school children but for students everywhere. To date, 50,000 children have been reached by SpaceIL volunteers in classrooms around the world.

The work has been funded by philanthropists, but it is also supported by the Israel Space Agency and major hi-tech corporations such as Elbit, Rafael and Israel Aerospace Industries. It is also supported by educational institutions such as the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Weizmann Institute of Science, and Tel Aviv University. Last December, the Israeli team estimated that the total cost of the mission was $85 million.

“It should be noted that only three countries have so far landed spacecraft on the moon – the United States, Russia and China – and all three have done so with tremendous financial investment and with the participation of thousands of engineers,” said venture capitalist Maurice Kahn, a major contributor and for years the chairman of the SpaceIL board.

“We are making history, and when we do that, we will be very proud, and that is the pride that we need in the country. We will all remember where we were when Israel landed on the moon,” he said.

To date, the US remains the only country to have successfully conducted manned missions to the moon, with the last departing the lunar surface in December 1972.



Mind-blowing 1,600-year-old biblical mosaics paint new picture of Galilean life

In its eighth dig season, the vibrant mosaic flooring of a fifth century synagogue excavated in the small ancient Galilee village of Huqoq continues to surprise. The 2018 Huqoq dig has uncovered unprecedented depictions of biblical stories, including the Israelite spies in Canaan.

With its rich finds, the Byzantine-period synagogue busts scholars’ preconceived notions of a Jewish settlement in decline.

“What we found this year is extremely exciting,” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Prof. Jodi Magness told The Times of Israel, saying the biblically based depictions are “unparalleled” and not found in any other ancient synagogue.

“The synagogue just keeps producing mosaics that there’s just nothing like and is enriching our understanding the Judaism of the period,” said Magness.

A recently unearthed mosaic shows two men carrying between them a pole on their shoulders from which is hung a massive cluster of grapes (the same as the easily recognizable symbol of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism). With a clear Hebrew inscription stating, “a pole between two,” it illustrates Numbers 13:23, in which Moses sends two scouts to explore Canaan.

Before wrapping up the dig season last week, the team of 20 excavators uncovered a further biblical mosaic panel, which shows a youth leading an animal on a rope and includes the inscription, “a small child shall lead them.” It is a reference to Isaiah 11:6, “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

According to a 2013 Biblical Archaeology Review article by Magness, “Huqoq was a prosperous village about 3 miles west of Magdala (home of Mary Magdalene) and Capernaum (where Jesus taught in the synagogue),” located next to a fresh spring. It appears twice in the Hebrew Bible, in Joshua 19:32–34 and 1 Chronicles 6:74–75. “Our excavations have not reached these early occupation levels, however,” she writes.

These two newly published mosaics join a pantheon of others — from 2012 and 2013, two Samson depictions, to fantastical elephants and mythical creatures from 2013-2015, Noah’s Ark in 2016, and colorful and as yet unpublished Jonah and the whale in 2017.

During this year’s dig, the team also continued to expose and study rare 1,600-year-old columns, first uncovered in previous seasons, which are covered in painted plaster with red, orange, and yellow vegetal motifs. Other discovered columns, said Magness, were painted to imitate marble.

However, despite these “imitation marble” columns, this was no poor man’s synagogue. Much in the manner of King Herod decorating his palaces with painted faux-marble frescos, the columns and gorgeous mosaics point to a wealthy, flourishing fifth-century Jewish settlement, said Magness.

“In general, unless you’re in a really important church in the Byzantine period, you won’t find marble, rather this common local alternative,” she said. She laughed, saying there is a feeling of “one-ups-manship” in the construction of the Huqoq synagogue.

“Every village has its own synagogue,” Magness said. “In Huqoq there’s a feeling that the villagers said, ‘We’re going to build the biggest and best.’ It’s as if they decided to throw everything into it.”

The obvious wealth and disposable income displayed in the synagogue is “contradicting a widespread view — not my view — that the Jewish community was in decline,” she said.

However, not only the synagogue was rich and diverse, but also the Judaism it housed.

“The mosaics decorating the floor of the Huqoq synagogue revolutionize our understanding of Judaism in this period,” said Magness in a press release. “Ancient Jewish art is often thought to be aniconic, or lacking images. But these mosaics, colorful and filled with figured scenes, attest to a rich visual culture as well as to the dynamism and diversity of Judaism in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods.”

According to Magness, “Rabbinic sources indicate that Huqoq flourished during the Late Roman and Byzantine periods (fourth–sixth centuries CE). The village is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud in connection with the cultivation of the mustard plant.”

Aside from the outstanding mosaics and colorfully painted columns, there are other features of note in this synagogue: Discovered in 2012, an inscription flanked by the faces of two women and a man (a fourth face, presumably of a man, is not preserved) might be the first donor portraits found in a Jewish house of prayer. The practice, said Magness, was “not uncommon in Byzantine churches,” but has no parallel example found in a synagogue of the era.

Although there are aspects of the synagogue which may point to a Christian influence, for example the possible donor portraits, Magness does not believe the Huqoq community was more impacted than other neighboring congregations.

“In general there was some interaction between Jews and Christians, as well as Judaism and Christianity, in the sense that both religions laid claim to the same tradition and called themselves the ‘true Israel,’” said Magness. It is not coincidental that the same biblical themes appear in both forums.

“They is clearly some sort of dialogue, broadly speaking… A lot of what we see at Huqoq can be understood on the background of the rise of Christianity,” she said.

“There is evidence of occupation at the site during the Persian, Hellenistic, Early Roman, Abbasid, Fatimid and Crusader-Mamluke periods. The modern village was abandoned in 1948 during the fighting in Israel’s War of Independence. In the 1960s, the site was bulldozed,” writes Magness in BAR.

It appears that the Huqoq synagogue is the ancestor of what seems to be a later, 12-13th century Jewish house of prayer. Faint, broken remnants of that incarnation’s mosaic flooring have also been discovered a meter above the dynamic mosaics of the Byzantine era.

It is possible, said Magness, that this is a synagogue mentioned by French 14th century Jewish physician-turned-traveler Isaac HaKohen Ben Moses, aka Ishtori Haparchi, mentioned in his 1322 geography of the Holy Land, “Sefer Kaftor Vaferach.”

Regardless, there are no extant medieval synagogues in Israel today, making this find potentially no less important than the more attention-grabbing images in the fifth century mosaic floors, said Magness.

Both of these finds — the medieval synagogue and beautiful Byzantine mosaics — are all the more remarkable in that they are a by-product of a different scholarly quest: Magness decided to excavate at Huqoq to test a wide-spread Galilean synagogue dating system, which dated the buildings based on their architectural structures.

“Since the early 20th century, when these synagogues began coming to light, scholars developed a tripartite chronology: The earliest, these so-called ‘Galilean-type synagogues,’ were dated to the second and third centuries CE, followed by ‘transitional synagogues’ in the fourth century, and then by ‘Byzantine synagogues’ in the fifth and sixth centuries,” writes Magness in the BAR article.

Although housed in a fifth-century village, based on its architectural features, according to previous scholarly consensus, the Huqoq synagogue should have been classified a “Galilean-type synagogue” and dated to the second or third centuries. This is, Magness has proven, clearly not the case.

What was originally to have been a brief excavation has turned into eight seasons. And although Magness is assisted by Shua Kisilevitz of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and Tel Aviv University, the excavation is funded independently of the IAA, by sponsors including UNC-Chapel Hill, Baylor University, Brigham Young University and the University of Toronto, the Friends of Heritage Protection, the National Geographic Society, the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust, and the Carolina Center for Jewish Studies.

There will be a 2019 dig season, said Magness, who estimated she needs at least another four years to complete the ever-evolving project.

“Every year, there is another mind-blowing, weird discovery,” said Magness.