The Antiquities Authority revealed on Tuesday that officers from its Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery arrested four men from Rahat who were allegedly attempting to rob an archeological site near Beit Shemesh on Saturday. The unit’s inspectors caught the men digging a large hole uncovering a network of underground passages in their search for buried treasure they believed to be hidden there.
The men were arrested on the spot and taken by members of the Border Police to the Jerusalem central police station for interrogation. When brought before a judge, the suspects denied the charges and were released on NIS 50,000 bail. The Antiquities Authority spokeswoman said that an indictment charging the men with damaging an archeological site and unlawful digging in an archeological site – offenses that carry five- and three-year sentences, respectively – will be issued in the coming days.
The site where the arrests took place holds the remnants of 3,000 years of habitation, dating back to the days of the First Temple. The site, which was also populated in the Byzantine period 2,000 years ago and during the Crusades 900 years ago, features remains of a fortified wall, various structures, graves and a network of underground caves and tunnels. The alleged robbers destroyed structure walls, and their aggressive digging caused irrecoverable damage to multiple archeological levels.
Amir Ganor, who heads the antiquities robbery prevention unit, was on hand during the arrest and said the damage done by the men was irreversible.
“Me and my men noticed a vehicle parked near the site close to Moshav Zecharya. Over the last few months we have discovered holes in the ground left by potential robbers on the site, so we had reasons to believe that the vehicle belonged to them. We snuck up to the site and saw the men digging a deep hole near one of the ancient walls. When we saw what they were doing we immediately arrested the perpetrators and called the border police unit to take them away to the police station, where they spent the night before seeing a judge the next morning,” said Ganor.
“The men will be charged with robbing, looting and destroying an archeological site. If found guilty, the law determines a maximum of five years in prison for the offense,” he said.
Ganor said that the alleged robbers, like everyone involved in the trade of archeological artifacts, were looking to get rich from their findings. “Where archeologists see history, robbers see dollar signs. The hope of finding valuables, be they ancient coins, jewelry or even pottery, is what drives them to destroy centuries of history.”
According to Ganor, every year 150 robbers are caught in the act of digging up archeological sites. Of these, 85 percent are charged and convicted. Ganor said that the Antiquities Authority knows of 300 archeological sites that are dug up every year and estimates that there are probably 300 more that they don’t know of.
“Israel has more than 30,000 archeological sites. Many of them have stories or legends about buried treasure hidden within them. Dreams of ancient riches are what drive the robbers to commit the crimes,” said Ganor.
“The robbers are very familiar with the land, often more than us. They know where the sites are and know where to look for valuables. Sometimes they also dig up graves in search of objects that were buried alongside the deceased.”
Ganor said it was impossible to profile the average robber. “Unfortunately it is a problem that exists in all segments of the population. There are Jews, Arabs, Palestinians, even foreign nationals – all share the dream of digging up the find that will make them rich.”
According to Ganor, Israel is home to a well-established system of
antiquities trade, driven by the large demand for ancient artifacts by
collectors, tourists and traders. The diggers, like the men he and his
team caught on Saturday, are only the bottom wrung of the ladder, which
extends to a large network of middlemen, antiquities dealers and
“The higher the pyramid stretches, the wealthier the people at the top tend to be,” said Ganor.
sites belong to the whole public and are human heritage assets. Digging
up a site causes irreversible damage. Anything removed from it is taken
out of the human inventory. No length of time in prison can make up for
or correct the damage that is done to the site. Harming ancient sites
is like ripping pages from the cultural history books of the land and
its people,” said Ganor.