Israeli Scientists Use a New Technique to Unveil Lost Letters

June 19 2017

For archaeologists studying the ancient Near East, ostraca—potsherds on which notes and letters were written in ink—provide a crucial source of information. While ostraca are far more durable than papyrus, scholars have long been aware that the ink on clay can fade easily. A group of applied mathematicians, physicists, and archaeologists at Tel Aviv University have devised a form of multispectral imaging that can detect such faded writing. And unlike similar techniques already in use, this one does not require advanced or expensive equipment. Amanda Borschel-Dan writes:

A corpus of 91 ostraca written on the eve of the kingdom of Judah’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE was unearthed at Tel Arad, west of the Dead Sea, in the 1960s. . . . Containing lists of supplies and orders from military quartermasters, the shards were of immeasurable value to the study of the Hebrew language and the sociology and economy of the time period.

Now, though, with the discovery of previously invisible words and even sentences on the “blank” reverse side of one of the first shards to be examined with the new technology, the pieces have become still more important. . . . [M]any shards previously thought of as blank have been summarily disposed of at digs or during artifact recording. . . .

[The decoded ostracon] is a letter sent to Elyashiv, [thought to be the quartermaster of a military fortress], from one Ḥananyahu—the team speculates he was a quartermaster in Beersheba—and discusses the transfer of silver. [The] newly discovered text shows that Ḥananyahu also asked for wine.

Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Ancient Israel, Archaeology, History & Ideas, Israeli technology

Lessons for the U.S. from Israel’s 2007 Bombing of the Syrian Nuclear Reactor

March 23 2018

In 2007, then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan came to Washington with overwhelming evidence that Syria, with North Korean help, had built a nuclear reactor for military use. After a debate among his advisers, President Bush told then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that he had chosen to pressure Bashar al-Assad diplomatically to give up his nuclear program. Israel itself then bombed the reactor, which was located in an area that in a few years would become the heartland of Islamic State. Earlier this week, for the first time, Jerusalem publicly took responsibility for the attack. (Amnon Lord explores possible reasons for that decision here.) Elliott Abrams—then the deputy national security adviser for the Middle East—related the discussion within the White House over what to do about the reactor, and also explained what could be learned from the affair, in a 2013 article for Commentary:

The Israelis believed that if they [or American officials] spoke about the strike [after it happened], Assad might be forced to react to this humiliation by trying to attack Israel. If, however, we all shut up, he might do nothing—nothing at all. He might try to hide the fact that anything had happened. And with every day that passed, the possibility that he would acknowledge the event and fight back diminished. That had been the Israeli theory, and the Israelis knew their man. We maintained silence and so did Israel—no leaks. As the weeks went by, the chances of an Israeli-Syrian confrontation grew slim and then disappeared. Syria has never admitted that there was a reactor at the site. . . .

Two final points are worth noting. First, in May 2008, Turkish-mediated peace talks between Israel and Syria were publicly announced in Istanbul. The discussions had begun secretly in February 2007, and obviously had continued after the Israeli strike on [the reactor]. It would appear that the strike . . . made the Syrians more, not less, desirous of talking to the Israelis because it made them afraid of Israeli power. It also made them more afraid of American power until we undermined our own position, which is the second point.

A very well-placed Arab diplomat later told us that the strike had left Assad deeply worried as to what was coming next. He had turned Syria into the main transit route for jihadists going to Iraq to kill American soldiers. From Libya or Indonesia, Pakistan or Egypt, they would fly to Damascus International Airport and be shepherded into Iraq. Assad was afraid that on the heels of the Israeli strike would come American action to punish him for all this involvement. But just weeks later, Assad received his invitation to send a Syrian delegation to [a] big international confab [organized by] then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the Annapolis Conference, and according to the Arab envoy, Assad relaxed immediately; he knew he would be OK. . . .

Finally, this incident is a reminder that there is no substitute for military strength and the will to use it. Think of how much more dangerous to the entire region the Syrian civil war would be today if Assad had a nuclear reactor, and even perhaps nuclear weapons, in hand. Israel was right to bomb that reactor before construction was completed, and President Bush was right to support its decision to do so. Israel was also right in rejecting fears that the incident would lead to a larger war and in believing that it, and the United States, would be better off after this assertion of leadership and determination.

Read more at Commentary

More about: Bashar al-Assad, George W. Bush, Israel & Zionism, Nuclear proliferation, Syria, US-Israel relations