Site Guard, Local Sheikh Arrested for Vandalizing Avdat

The ancient Nabatean site at Avdat National Park, which was severely damaged by vandals late Sunday, was empty of tourists yesterday despite expectations of a large turnout. The only visitors to the place were police officers and reporters.

Israel Antiquities Authority officials took stock of the damage to the site, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO four years ago. Experts gave an initial estimate of about NIS 8 million to repair the damage, which included pulled-down arches, shattered pillars and the defaced remains of a Byzantine church.

All the perpetrators are believed to be Bedouin who acted in response to the demolition of 23 buildings in Bedouin communities by Israeli authorities.

The chairman of the Nature and Parks Authority, Eli Amitay, said on Sunday the authority would present a detailed accounting of the damage. "Most of the money will go to rehabilitation, preservation and restoration, including of items that were destroyed completely," Amitay said.

The Be'er Sheva District Court extended the remand yesterday of the two suspects in the crime by four days. The men, aged 41 and 57, are a guard at the site and the sheikh of a local Bedouin village. They deny the accusations. The police say more arrests are expected.

According to police sources, the guard said during questioning that he had heard noises in the park but did not call the police because the noises stopped after a few minutes. Police investigators believe the guard cooperated with the vandals and let them into the site.

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Southern District police commander Yohanan Danino visited the site yesterday. Aharonovitch said the police would work hard to track down the perpetrators still at large. He said the police were examining whether the vandalism was in response to the demolitions, but "everything is open."

Danino said additional arrests in the case were expected within days. "Anyone who believes that the brazen violation of the law, especially in regard to sites of national importance, can stop the enforcement of justice in this country is mistaken," Danino said.