Palestinian envoy to UNESCO: Pressure Israel to return 'stolen' artifact

In July, COGAT officials located the font near the city of Bethlehem, together with the Bethlehem District Coordination and Liaison Office and the cooperation of the Etzion Regional Brigade.

5th century baptismal font recovered by COGAT on July 20, 2020. (photo credit: COGAT SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
5th century baptismal font recovered by COGAT on July 20, 2020.
(photo credit: COGAT SPOKESPERSON'S OFFICE)
The Palestinian envoy to UNESCO, Mounir Anastas, called on the United Nations' cultural heritage arm to pressure Israel into returning a Byzantine-era baptismal font back into the possession of Palestinian authorities, according to the state-run WAFA news agency.
The fifth century baptismal font was originally stolen from the Tel Tekoa archaeological site in the West Bank by antiquity looters around 20 years ago. The artifact, which dates back to the Byzantine period, is about 1.5 meters high and is shaped as an octagon and decorated with a cross and a stylized garland.
Anastas said on local radio in the West Bank that he demanded UNESCO to pressure Israel into returning "the stolen baptismal font," and urged the UN body to create a permanent item on the agenda to discuss "illicit ownership of cultural and historical property."
In July, COGAT officials located the font within the city Tuqu', near Bethlehem, together with the Bethlehem District Coordination and Liaison Office and the cooperation of the Etzion Regional Brigade.
In the night, COGAT loaded up the graffitied artifact, which they found left abandoned in a yard, and brought it back to Tel Tekoa.
A few hours later, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) Department of Public Diplomacy and Policy released a video on Twitter claiming that “Israeli occupation forces stole a historical baptismal font dating back to the 6th century from the city of Bethlehem last night.”
The Palestinian envoy claims that after the font was stolen in 2000, the Tuqu' municipality, located in the area of Tekoa in Gush Etzion, "managed to retrieve the font and placed it in the vicinity of the mayor’s house, pending the construction of a local museum.
PLO official Hanan Ashrawi described the event at the time as “an abominable act of thuggery and cultural appropriation.”
“A hallmark of Israel’s system of colonial occupation and oppression has been its disdainful attempts to erase Palestinian presence, culture and heritage, including the illegal appropriation and theft of heritage sites and artifacts,” she added in a press release.
The questions of jurisdiction and management in archaeological sites in the region are very complex, presenting multiple legal and practical issues.
At present, the archaeology unit at COGAT is in charge of the sites in Israel-controlled Area C, which includes the area of Tekoa, while the Palestinian Authority is responsible for sites located in PA-controlled Area A and in Area B, which include Bethlehem.
However, many instances of neglect, looting and sometimes even destruction, have been documented in sites under the PA control.
The PA has harshly criticized archaeological activities conducted under Israeli auspices in the West Bank calling them “a crime” and labeling them as “political, not scientific.”

Rosella Tercatin contributed to this report.