Tomb raiders arrested in Ashkelon National Park for looting, damaging ancient site

Three suspects found with metal detector and digging equipment claim they were looking for "worms to go fishing."

Ashkelon National Park [File] (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Ashkelon National Park [File]
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Three Beduin men were arrested Friday night for breaking into and attempting to loot an ancient burial site in Ashkelon National Park, the Israel Antiquities Authority Robbery Prevention Unit announced on Sunday.
According to an IAA spokesman, the suspects, all in their 30s, drove an SUV from their village outside Beersheba to the Byzantine-era tomb equipped with a sophisticated metal detector and digging equipment.
“They broke into the ancient tombs and during their digging caused irreparable damage to gravestones, ancient pottery, and coffins,” said IAA robbery unit inspector and archeologist Guy Fitoussi.
Noting that numerous antiquity sites in the southern port city area have been looted over the last several months, Fitoussi said he and his team have initiated nightly stakeouts to catch suspects.
Fitoussi said the three men were arrested and taken for questioning by Ashkelon police. During their interrogation, he said the suspects denied looting the site, claiming that they were searching for worms to fish with at a nearby dock.
An Ashkelon Magistrate’s Court judge ordered them remanded pending an investigation.
Fitoussi said their activities caused “irreversible damage” to the 1,500-year-old site, including to pottery and the three graves they attempted to open.
“What they were looking for is what’s inside the coffin; the coins and jewelry buried with the dead,” he said, adding that none appeared to be stolen.
“In ancient times they buried their dead with artifacts that belonged to the deceased persons, believing the dead will take it with them to the next world,” Fitoussi continued.
“These items are kept intact in the tombs, and therefore are of particular interest to grave robbers.”
He said the damage sustained from the looting will seriously hinder important future archeological research.
“They destroyed remnants from an ancient site for greed, preventing the ability to carry out research at a historical site by destroying valuable clues to understanding the culture of the inhabitants in ancient times,” Fitoussi lamented.
He noted that damage to an archeological site is a serious offense, punishable by up to five years in prison, and that indictments are expected to be filed against all three suspects in the coming days.
The looting of antiquities sites for valuable relics is not uncommon, and has resulted in a number of arrests throughout the country since the robbery prevention unit was established.
On December 31, a Beit Shemesh man was arrested after looting some 800 ancient coins, bronze objects, and jewelry from an archeological site in the city.
One week earlier, the unit arrested two Arabs and two Israelis who attempted to loot buried gold from a protected ancient cave near the West Bank, which they allegedly intended to sell on the black market.