A court has sentenced six Palestinian residents of the West Bank to 18 months in prison for stealing antiquities and causing irreversible damage to an archaeological site by conducting an unauthorized dig.
The defendants, who were sentenced last Thursday, confessed as part of a plea bargain to stealing antiquities from the Cave of Skulls, which is part of the Nahal Tze’elim archaeological site in the Judean Desert. In addition to their prison terms, the Be’er Sheva Magistrate’s Court fined them 12,000 shekels ($3,100) apiece.
The cave contains antiquities from the Roman and Chalcolithic eras, including some from Jews who fled there during the Bar Kochba rebellion against the Romans in 132-136 C.E. The thieves, all from the village of Seir near Hebron, planned to sell what they stole in a public auction.
The robbery was apparently well-planned. The cave isn’t easily visible, so the thieves had to know it was there; nor is it easily accessible. The thieves reached it by climbing down an 80-meter cliff with the help of ropes. They also brought sleeping bags and enough food and water to last them several days, though they ended up staying only one night.
As they dug for salable antiquities, the thieves disturbed archaeological layers and shattered bits of pottery and other items that struck them as valueless. They ultimately dug a hole three meters deep.
On the second day of their unauthorized dig, inspectors from the Israel Antiquities Authority discovered them. They were arrested and held in detention until the end of their trial.
Dr. Eitan Klein, an Antiquities Authority archaeologist, told the court during the trial that documents from the time of the Bar Kochba rebellion had been found in the cave in the 1960s. He said the thieves were most likely seeking other such documents, which would be worth millions of shekels. He added that they caused irreversible damage to the site.
The defense argued that the state hadn’t conducted digs at the site in about 50 years, and thus the ancient wooden comb the defendants found would never have been discovered had it not been for them.
But Judge Ron Sulkin, who found that the defendants were an organized gang of professional antiquities thieves, wasn’t impressed by this argument. “These are crimes whose potential damage – both direct economic damage and the nonfinancial damage of harming cultural assets – was enormous,” he wrote. “In contrast, the chances of a discovery were near zero.”
Amir Ganor of the Antiquities Authority’s theft prevention unit said that “caves in the Judean Desert are where some of the most important archaeological finds have been made,” and the defendants “severely damaged one of the most important” of those caves.
There have been dozens of antiquities thefts in recent years, especially around Beit Guvrin, Tel Ashkelon and sites in the Negev.