Rise in antiquities theft vexes Israel's 'Indiana Joneses'
Looting in the West Bank is a new concern. But the 'James ossuary' reveals a need for continued vigilance at home
Not everyone gets a chance to play on-screen action hero Indiana Jones in real life, but Ron Kehati of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) comes close.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Kehati, an archaeologist by training, is part of the authority's special Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Theft, charged with preserving and preventing the looting of archaeological treasures from Israel's 35,000 known field sites.
Kehati and his enforcement colleagues are out in the field every day stopping "bad guys" (aka antiquities thieves) from plying their trade.
Working on tips from the police, army, intelligence service, local farmers, and just about anyone else, the antitheft unit investigates hundreds of reports of illegal digging each year. They roam the marketplaces in Jerusalem's Old City looking for ill-gotten goods, monitor auctions, and licensed shops, and set up ambushes at night in hopes of catching diggers red-handed.
Looters are not exactly looking for the Ark of the Covenant, but they do turn up precious objects from time to time. Only last month, a private Israeli collector revealed he possessed a small limestone ossuary that may be the ancient burial box of James, the brother of Jesus of Nazareth. The owner of this potentially earth-shattering find, who has been interrogated by Israeli officials, reportedly says he bought it for a few hundred dollars in the 1970s from a dealer who, in turn, most likely acquired it from a professional grave robber. (Some experts dispute the ossuary's significance, and still others have suggested it is a fake.)
The bigger problem these days, though, is outside the IAA's jurisdiction, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Authorities in Israel say there's been a noticeable rise in the plundering of archaeological treasures in the territory, where unemployment runs as high as 40 percent and, because of current political tensions, many Palestinians are no longer allowed to work in Israel.
"We see the results of the destruction of archaeological sites [in the West Bank] as thousands of pieces make their way to the shops here in Jerusalem," says Kehati.
As sites in the West Bank are being emptied, it appears more Palestinians are taking the risk of crossing the politically sensitive "Green Line" that separates Israel from the West Bank, in search of more promising places to dig. A rise in poverty is a likely motive. Last year, the IAA's anti-theft unit reported that it caught a Palestinian Authority policeman digging within Israel to supplement his meager wages.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), for its part, set up an antiquities department after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords with Israel in 1993. But critics in Israel say its ability to stop theft has been limited and that digging continues unabated in many Palestinian-controlled areas. The PA's Ministry of Culture counts some 1,600 major archaeological sites in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but the authority has not enacted legislation to regulate their safety.
Adel Yahya, an archaeologist with the Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange, recently told the American press that the level of destruction of archaeological sites has dramatically increased. "Places excavated in previous years have been abandoned and are not protected," he said. Some observers have argued that the presence of Israeli troops impedes Palestinian access to some sites.