Driving south along Route 60 from the Etzion Junction in the West Bank, you’d have no idea what is happening just meters away. The twisty road passes by olive groves and vineyards, until it arrives at the Palestinian town of Al-Arroub. Hidden among the trees is an archaeological site. But if you park by the side of the road and walk over to it, you’ll be met by a very strange sight: pits, some several meters deep, covered with branches. Sometimes, near the side of the pits, you’ll find fragments of ancient pottery.
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These pits are the work of the West Bank’s antiquities thieves, who are grabbing as many as thousands of items a year.
The West Bank is dotted with antiquities sites, of various sizes and importance. In Area C alone (which comprises some 60 percent of the West Bank, and is under full Israeli control), there are believed to be at least 2,600 sites like this.
The ancient objects are mostly connected with Jewish history. But there is still the question of whom they belong to, and from whom they are being stolen.
“Legally speaking, throughout the West Bank the antiquities belong to the local residents,” says archaeologist Yoni Mizrahi, of the NGO Emek Shaveh that says it works to prevent the “politicization of archaeology” in the area. “It is also totally clear to Israel that these antiquities do not belong to it,” he adds.
Israeli law enforcement authorities believe the antiquities theft involves a level of Jewish and Palestinian cooperation: Hundreds of Palestinians dig the holes and remove the antiquities, then sell them to antiquities dealers, who sell them onto collectors, mainly Israelis.
Hananya Hizmi, of the IDF Civil Administration’s archaeology division, says this is also indicated by the Jewish nature of the majority of the artifacts. “Why? Because that’s where the demand is,” he says. “They know the Jews want the Jewish history [-related items], let’s put it that way.”
The Civil Administration is responsible for these areas, but its archaeological division employs just a single inspector, who is supposed to oversee all of the sites. The administration admits it doesn’t have a budget for more extensive activity, or for genuine oversight.
“It’s hard to estimate how many of the [archaeological] sites have been robbed, because we just can’t patrol all the sites,” says Hizmi. “But the theft mainly happens in the significant sites, in the ‘tels’ [artificial mounds].” He says at least 100 sites have been “massively impacted” by the thefts.
Those familiar with the problem say there are Palestinian shops in East Jerusalem and the West Bank that sell stolen antiquities. But no one is able to put an exact figure on the number of antiquities stolen each year in the occupied territories.
Over the years, about 40,000 stolen objects have been recovered and now lie in the Civil Administration’s storerooms – most are ancient coins and fragments of pottery. Hizmi says Israel seizes several hundred stolen coins and several dozen stolen pottery fragments each year, mostly at the Allenby crossing with Jordan, but that the problem is clearly much larger than that.
But law enforcement appears to be practically nil. Haaretz has learned that just nine cases were opened this year following complaints lodged with the Civil Administration. Fourteen people were arrested on suspicion of antiquities theft, and three indictments were filed.
And yet, low as these numbers are, they actually represent an increase over previous years. A law enforcement source says thieves are even spotted in the act sometimes, but by the time the authorities get there, they are long gone. Another knowledgeable source says cases are often closed for “lack of public interest.”
Archaeologist Mizrahi still holds the Civil Administration accountable. “As per the Oslo Accords, the Civil Administration is responsible for safeguarding the antiquities until the occupation has ended, no matter what,” he says. But the Civil Administration says that without further funding for more positions in the archaeology division, it cannot effectively fight the problem.
“To have serious enforcement, I need 13 to 15 people to form a unit that could function properly,” says Hizmi. He also says the thieves have learned how to disguise their actions – like at the site near Etzion Junction – so that the theft is only discernible if the inspector goes right up to the spot, which makes enforcement even harder.
“These are sites where it is very easy to dig, and they’re not always easy to see,” says Hizmi. “The people are hidden. You have to get right up to where the dig is in order to see anything.” He says that when he requested additional support, he was told, “Make do with what you have.”
There has been a drastic increase in the scope of the theft of late, “which apparently stems from some sort of political element,” says Hizmi.
Ovad Arad from Regavim – part of a coalition of right-leaning organizations concerned with monitoring and guarding (mostly Jewish) archaeological sites in the West Bank – is more specific. He says the thefts are borne of both financial and ideological motives. “It’s a very extensive phenomenon, on both levels,” he says. On the financial side, the thieves are “out to make a living. There’s a lot of money in it. You can see that coins from the Bar Kochba period are being sold for tens of thousands of shekels on eBay.”
Arad claims a second motive is the attempt to remove the historical Jewish connection to the West Bank. “The aim is to erase the history and damage the archaeological sites,” he says. “In a lot of places, we’ve seen that people came to a site and robbed it, and then they brought in a digger to destroy it. It’s just like what ISIS is doing in Palmyra.”