Vandals Destroy Ancient Negev Site

Bedouin held for 'unparalleled damage' to Nabatean archaeological park

Police yesterday arrested two Negev Bedouin on suspicion of vandalizing the southern archaeological park of Avdat as revenge for the recent demolition of homes in the area.

Police say the two suspects, aged 41 and 57, may have wreaked on Sunday what one high-ranking preservation official called "unparalleled damage" to the site.

A farmer in the area says he's experienced such revenge vandalism for years.

The two suspects are believed to have been angered by the demolition of a home of a relative; they deny they were involved and are slated to be arraigned today.

Avdat's archaeological section was recognized by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a Heritage Site four years ago. The area was severely damaged in the late-night attack that occurred although a guard was nearby. The guard says he did not hear the shattering of archaeological finds.

The vandals knocked down arches thousand of years old, destroyed ancient columns that once supported houses of worship and spray painted the remains of a Byzantine church, according to Orit Bortnik, who heads the preservation efforts of the Israel Nature and Parks Protection Authority.

The head of the authority's southern district, Raviv Shapira, said he had "never seen anything like" the destruction at Avdat. Bortnik spoke of the staff's distress: "We walked around with tears in our eyes. The people who did this caused destruction like a pogrom. They destroyed the place."

Avdat is one of four ancient Nabatean cities in the Negev. All the reconstructed cities received the exclusive UNESCO status, but Avdat was considered unique, because it held some of the world's most ancient Byzantine churches, dating back to the third century CE.

Recent excavations have shown that the town continued to be inhabited by the Nabataeans continuously from the first century until its destruction by earthquake in the early seventh century CE.

The town was named after the Nabataean King Obodas I, who was revered as a deity and, according to tradition, was buried there.

Shapira said the worst damage was done to structures in the so-called Upper City, whereas the guard was in the Lower City. He added that the vandals also damaged parked cars belonging to hikers.

The intelligence unit of the Israel Police's Southern District suspects the vandalism is connected to the tearing down of a tin shack on Sunday in a Bedouin village near Ramat Nafha, which is close to Avdat. Police sources said investigators are looking into the possibility that a group of young men decided to take revenge for the demolition of the illegal structure by destroying archaeological finds and cars at Avdat.

Severe damage was done the same night to a Jewish-owned agricultural farm. A pickup truck entered Nana Farm, owned by Eran Raz, and drove over vines and destroyed the irrigation system, said Raz. His farm, he added, is usually targeted for revenge after demolitions in Bedouin villages. "Every time there's a demolition, I end up paying the price," Raz said. "The Bedouin know every square meter around here. They know which places are guarded and which ones are not, and I have suffered vandalism by the Bedouin for the past eight years."

A resident of the Bedouin village in which the Israel Lands Administration ordered the demolition of the shack said: "I don't know if the attack was to avenge the demolition, but the demolition provoked a lot of anger."

Shmulik Reifman, head of Ramat Negev regional council, said: "The attack was an escalation. We need to know whether the Negev is subject to the rule of law - or whether we are living in the Wild South."