By Ilana Messika/TPS
A pair of antiquities thieves was caught in the act over the weekend after an alert hiker notified authorities.
A patrol from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) theft prevention unit apprehended two Nazareth residents with digging tools in their possession on the grounds of the archaeological site of Ancient Tzipori, also known by its Greek names Sepphoris and Diocaesarea, in the Western Galilee.
Tzipori was a Jewish center of learning and in the third century CE was the home of Rav Yehuda Hanassi, the head of the Sanhedrin (highest Jewish religious court), and compiler of the Mishnah.
The two men, in their thirties, had apparently been trying to unearth a 2,000-year-old tunnel used as a hideout during Roman times in order to steal artifacts.
“We are seeing significant criminal activity by antiquities robbers in the north,” said Nir Distelfeld, an IAA inspector. “The northern region is dotted with thousands of antiquity sites and our mission is to protect them and prevent looting. It is a complex and challenging goal.”
“It seems that neither high temperatures nor [the Muslim daytime fast of] Ramadan, suffice to deter the robbers from trying to find ancient treasures,” added Distelfeld.
Distelfeld said another cell had been caught two weeks ago while illegally digging in the Carmiel region.
IAA Robbery Prevention Unit Director Amir Ganor told Tazpit Press Service (TPS) that the IAA believes there are between 200 to 250 antiquities robberies per year in Israel, contributing to a thriving black market in the country. The number of cell members can vary from two to dozens.
“The Prevention Unit operates day and night throughout Israel’s 30,000 antiquities sites to protect the artifacts, but our task is very challenging,” explained Ganor to TPS. “These are open sites that are accessible to all everyone. People can visit areas of importance to our heritage but there are some who take advantage of this easy access to commit theft. We simply cannot post guards at each and every site,” Ganor said.
Ganor added that “collaboration between the Unit, the Border Police, volunteers, technology and the invaluable vigilance of the public is what leads to most of these cells being apprehended and brought to justice.”
Ganor also explained that many of the antiquities thieves in northern Israel have been Arab-Israelis, from Nazareth for example, who have incomparable knowledge of the terrain. This fact hinders their capture and makes the Northern region particularly vulnerable, he said.
Damage to an archaeological site is punishable by law and carries up to a five-year prison sentence.