GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — On April 4, Palestinian security services in the West Bank were informed that a group of antiquities thieves had carried out illegal excavations in the town of Sarra, in the west of the Nablus governorate. The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities staff, along with members of the town's Preventive Security Service, immediately headed there.
Inspections by the ministry’s staff at the site revealed that the thieves had discovered a tomb dating back to the Roman Empire in Palestine. The thieves had opened a wide hole in the lid of the coffin found in the tomb and looted many artifacts from the site.
The thieves had also stolen a precious antique bluestone. According to information obtained by Al-Monitor, three people who live near the site are currently being investigated and already confessed to excavating and sabotaging the site.
Head of the Antiquities Protection Department in Nablus affiliated with the Ministry of Antiquities Mofeed Salah, who inspected the archaeological site, expressed regret over the damage caused by the arbitrary excavation.
He told Al-Monitor that the thieves damaged the coffin’s surface. “The coffin has valuable inscriptions. When the thieves were trying to break it open, they had to make a hole in the lid. Given the narrow surface, they were working in, the thieves were forced to break a part of the coffin.”
Salah said the tomb had never before been opened. “According to our initial estimates, the stone sarcophagus in the site belongs to a person from a very high social class, and it is known that the ancients would bury their dead along with their belongings.”
This Al-Monitor correspondent asked Salah how the thieves discovered the location of the tomb being that the surface of the soil at the excavation did not suggest the existence of any archaeological artifact.
He said, “During the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate in Palestine, these cemeteries and archaeological sites were documented, and their locations were determined on publicly available maps. We had seized in the past maps found on antiquities thieves indicating the locations of some tombs and archaeological sites in the West Bank.”
Salah said that the investigations reveal that some of the thieves in Serra were working for Israel. “Many Palestinian sites have been damaged and sabotaged due to arbitrary excavation. Some people who work for Israel have information about the location of archaeological sites; they employ Palestinian workers at low wages to dig up the sites and loot the artifacts so they can be sold or moved outside Palestine.”
Hassan al-Jamal, chief of the Tourist and Antiquities Police Department, told Al-Monitor that the police are continuously working to pursue the aggressors who loot Palestinian antiquities. “The attack on archaeological and heritage sites in Palestine undermines the human heritage that pertains to all of humanity,” he said. “According to Palestinian and international laws, it is our duty to protect these sites, ensure their security, and keep away looters and vandalizers who seek quick wealth."
Jamal, who monitors archaeological theft cases as part of his job, confirmed that most of the looted antiquities are smuggled abroad.
“Israel’s control over the crossings and outlets allows thieves to smuggle antiquities abroad since, under Israeli law, it is legal to take antiquities out of the country [through sales]. Meanwhile, Palestinian law prohibits tampering with, trading and displaying antiquities. It bars all Palestinian citizens from getting any excavation permit.”
He further noted that penalties ordered by courts for smuggling antiquities differ according to the type of violation and transgression. “For example, the penalty for trafficking in antiquities differs from the penalty for possession or damage of antiquities. Sometimes imprisonment may be ordered for 10 years or more.”
Archaeologist Jihad Mustafa said the theft of antiquities is widespread in the West Bank. “Palestinian antiquities were subjected to many acts of destruction and theft until the advent of the Palestinian Authority (PA) in 1994, which took it upon itself to reduce theft of antiquities,” he told Al-Monitor.
Mustafa indicated that the areas most exposed to theft and violation today are located in the area classified as Area C (under full Israeli security and administrative control). “About 62% of the archaeological sites in those areas are subject to theft, with the PA short on powers to protect them.”
Mustafa pointed out to almost daily arrests by the Tourist and Antiquities Police Department of many thieves, denouncing the Israeli offenses against Palestinian antiquities despite the fact that international law and the 1954 Hague Convention prevent it from doing so.
He added, “Israelis have destroyed many antiquities, and they are carrying out illegal excavations in archaeological sites — many of them behind the separation wall.”
The construction of the Israeli separation wall has destroyed approximately 40 archaeological sites. More than 1,100 archaeological sites were included within the Israeli side of the wall.