A fifth century baptismal font that was stolen from its original site by antiquity looters has been located and returned by the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories, COGAT announced on Monday. However, the reconstruction of the circumstances was denied by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which accused Israel of theft.
According to COGAT’s release, the artifact, which dates back to the Byzantine period, was looted about 20 years ago from the Tel Tekoa archaeological site in the West Bank. It is about 1.5 meters high and is shaped as an octagon and decorated with a cross and a stylized garland.
The operation to recover the relic was carried out early Monday morning by COGAT’s Archaeological Unit, together with the Bethlehem District Coordination and Liaison Office and the cooperation of the Etzion Regional Brigade.
The video present footage of the artifact loaded on an open truck.
WATCH: Israeli occupation forces stole a historical baptismal font dating back to the 6th century from the city of Bethlehem last night. pic.twitter.com/zCRjk0V79f— PLO Department of Public Diplomacy & Policy (@PalestinePDP) July 20, 2020
“I welcome the return of the baptismal font, which is a cultural and historical treasure from the Byzantine period,” said Hananya Hizmi, the head of COGAT’s Antiquities Unit. “The Civil Administration’s heavy investment of effort and resources in the search over recent years for this item has borne fruit. We will continue working tirelessly to preserve the sites and the archaeological relics throughout Judea and Samaria, and to prevent antiquities thieves from looting the history of the region.”
A few hours later, the 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 video presents footage of the artifact loaded on an open truck.
PLO official Hanan Ashrawi described the event 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 question of who is in charge of archaeological sites in the region and how they are managed is 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 and looting, and sometimes even destruction, have been documented in sites under the PA control, while on its part the PA harshly criticized archaeological activities conducted under Israeli auspices in the West Bank calling them “a crime” and labeling them as “political, not scientific.”