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Israel Cracks Down on Thefts of Antiquities

History: Almost as many people have been arrested in the last seven months as in all of last year. But catching everyone is impossible.


SHEKEF, Israel — Against a moonlit sky, six dark figures cast silhouettes as they crept along a rocky hill and disappeared down a 2,000-year-old tunnel in search of coins, oil lamps, jewelry, pottery and other precious artifacts.

Hiding in thick bramble and weeds, three agents from Israel's Antiquities Authority watched the Palestinians through night-vision goggles before tracking them down in a three-hour search through tiny passageways, caves and cisterns deep below the Judean foothills.

Archeologists say an increase in looting of ancient sites is a consequence of the worsening economy and collapsed law and order in Palestinian areas that has resulted from nearly two years of roiling conflict.

In the past, Israeli authorities have nabbed about 90 thieves each year for pilfering tombs, ruined cities, palaces, forts and other sites in Israel. This year, however, 80 arrests have been made in the first seven months.

About 30 suspects were Israeli citizens -- some Jewish and some Arab Bedouins. The rest were Palestinians from the West Bank who told investigators that they were driven by poverty and unemployment.

"Because of the economic situation, they don't have anything to lose," said Israeli Antiquities Authority agent Alon Klein, who is responsible for a portion of central Israel rich in ancient sites and just across the unmarked boundary with the West Bank.

Many Palestinians have been unable to reach the jobs they once held inside Israel because the military has sealed off their cities and towns in hopes of keeping militants out of Israel.

Armed with metal detectors and farming tools, some have taken to the hills in search of artifacts that might bring them a few hundred dollars from antiquities dealers.

In the West Bank, near Hebron, ancient Persian and Hellenistic settlements have been especially hard hit, emptied of precious writings inscribed on pottery shards.

"Almost every inch has been looted," said Hamdan Taha, director of the Palestinian Antiquities Authority.

The region's unrest has ended cooperation between Palestinian and Israeli antiquities policing, Taha said, and looting in the West Bank is up 20% this year, with 50 reported cases. So far, there have been no arrests, Taha said.

The Judean hills in central Israel, south of Jerusalem and just across the West Bank boundary from Hebron, also are heavily plundered. There are thousands of sites, dating from the Iron Age on through the first millennium B.C. to the Roman and Byzantine eras.

None of the officials could put a value on the damaged or plundered antiquities, but they agreed that the losses are great -- and unrecoverable.

"This is the richest area," Klein said. "On every hill you find something."

Bandits, some traveling by donkey from nearby Palestinian villages, are also after cars, tractors and cows. But the prize for many is the artifacts. Many sites, undiscovered by archeologists, are well-known to Palestinians.

"They know," Klein said. "Their fathers know. Their grandfathers know. They feel it with the hands, the feet."

Some of the plundered goods end up in shops in the West Bank and Jerusalem's Old City, sold to tourists or other traders overseas.

"Merchants have to produce proof of where they got the items," said Gideon Foerster, head of Hebrew University's Archaeology Institute. "So, they say they bought it from another dealer or that it came from Jordan. They always have prepared stories."

Klein and a colleague patrolled the hills recently looking for signs of digging. They scrutinized maps and talked to farmers and shepherds, sifting for clues.

Carrying a pistol, flashlight and walkie-talkie, Klein scanned the hills through binoculars, moving along a dirt road running between Israel and the West Bank.

On this spot two millenniums ago, the charismatic leader Bar Kochba led a band of Jews in a failed three-year rebellion against the Romans, who sent them into exile. Hiding from the Roman legionnaires, families carved underground shelters linked by narrow tunnels.

It was in one of those tunnels that the six Palestinians were caught in June, after the three-hour search by Klein and two other agents, peering through "Rat" night-vision scopes.

The thieves, from the nearby Palestinian village of Deir Samet, had used rocks to seal themselves in a tiny niche in the ceiling of the tunnel, which burrows about 30 feet below ground.

"We moved the rocks and saw their shoes and pulled them down," Klein said.

Before they were apprehended, the robbers used their axes to collapse a ceiling, filling the tunnel entrance with dirt.

The six men were sentenced to eight-month prison terms and were fined $430 each.

"I think most of the time we don't succeed to catch them," Klein said. "But we are trying."

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