The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court on Monday extended for the second time the remand of three suspected antiquities thieves caught red-handed late Thursday night illegally excavating an archaeological site in the Valley of Ella era.

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) said Monday that the three men were surprised by anti-antiquities theft officers backed up by Border Patrol and police officers while they had in their possession metal detectors, excavating tools, and ancient metals and relics.

The three men reportedly said in their defense that they were at the site gathering medicinal plants and not illegally digging in archeological sites.

In the coming days the Jerusalem District prosecutor's office plans to present an indictment against them the IAA said.

The IAA said Monday the three men, from Bethlehem and Kfar Nehilin snuck into Israel from the West Bank riding on donkeys through a mountainous area where the separation fence had still not been completed.

According to the IAA , the site where they were caught includes relics from the Hellenistic, Roman , and Byzantine eras.

Head of the Jerusalem District of the IAA's Antiquities theft prevention unit Uzi Rotstein, who took part in the Thursday night operation said Monday that "unapproved excavations in archaeological sites cause irreversible damage to the site and to the history of all of us. The archaeological layers are harmed and the findings are damaged and removed from their connections to the site and are lost to humanity permanently .

The incident was followed on Sunday by the arrest by IAA authorities and police of a man from the moshav of Sde Mosheh suspected of stealing antiquities from archaeological sites in the Lachish region.

In a search of his house, IAA officers and police found a number of relics including ancient coins, candle holders, and metal tools used for excavating.

According to IAA enforcement officials, the antiquities theft industry is a highly lucrative multi-million dollar illicit business involving illegal excavators, dealers, and collectors, working in Israel, the West Bank, and abroad.

The most highly-skilled excavators come from villages in the south Hebron Hills area where generations of men have made a living illegally excavating antiquities from archaeological sites within the Green Line. They search for all types of relics, but in particular, coins from the Bar Kochba era which can fetch thousands of dollars from collectors abroad.

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