5 arrested for searching for ‘gold treasure’ in Byzantine-era antiquities site

''There are many legends that there are buried treasures in the Negev, including at this site,'' said the Israel Antiquities Authority.

IDF soldier handcuffs a man (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF soldier handcuffs a man
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Five men have been arrested for looting a Negev excavation site from the Byzantine period in search of purported buried gold treasure, the Antiquities Authority said Wednesday.
According to Guy Fitoussi, head of the authority’s Theft Prevention Unit in the South, the attempted theft took place at the Shmaria excavation site, located adjacent to the Beduin community of Rahat.
“There are many legends that there are buried treasures in the Negev, including at this site from World War I,” said Fitoussi on Wednesday. “The problem with the thieves is that they are looking for the gold in antiquities sites, and create a lot of irreparable damage with their equipment.
“This was not the first time that this site has been looted and damaged,” he continued.
“Part of my job is to assess signs of antiquities theft, and over the past few years there has been an increasing phenomenon of incidents, particularly with people searching for gold.”
Upon noticing fresh soil dug up at the protected site several days ago, Fitoussi said he sought to catch the thieves’ red-handed Monday night, at approximately 8:30 p.m.
“After I saw the soil overturned on Sunday, I decided to do an ambush with two of my colleagues,” he said. “This area has been exploited for years, but this was the latest attempt, so what I do is try to catch them, because they usually come back, and they showed up.”
When he arrived at the site, Fitoussi said, he saw several unidentified cars parked nearby.
“We then found five Beduin men between the ages of 18 and 48 from Rahat inside the site with shovels and pickaxes, so we arrested them and called local police for backup,” he said.
“When we questioned them, they confessed that they were looking for gold treasures, but they didn’t find anything. They made some damage, but in this case it’s not irreversible.
If they dug further, there would likely be a church or monastery from the Byzantine period below, which would have been damaged.”
All five suspects spent the night in jail, Fitoussi said, before being released on house arrest.
“We take this very seriously, and indictments should be filed in the coming days,” he added.
In Israel, antiquities theft is punishable by up to five years in prison.