Not everyone gets a chance to play on-screen action hero Indiana
Jones in real life, but Ron Kehati of the Israel Antiquities
Authority (IAA) comes close.
Mr. Kehati, an archaeologist by training, is part of the
authority's special Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Theft,
charged with preserving and preventing the looting of archaeological
treasures from Israel's 35,000 known field sites.
Kehati and his enforcement colleagues are out in the field every
day stopping "bad guys" (aka antiquities thieves) from plying their
Working on tips from the police, army, intelligence service,
local farmers, and just about anyone else, the antitheft unit
investigates hundreds of reports of illegal digging each year. They
roam the marketplaces in Jerusalem's Old City looking for ill-
gotten goods, monitor auctions, and licensed shops, and set up
ambushes at night in hopes of catching diggers red-handed.
Looters are not exactly looking for the Ark of the Covenant, but
they do turn up precious objects from time to time. Only last month,
a private Israeli collector revealed he possessed a small limestone
ossuary that may be the ancient burial box of James, the brother of
Jesus of Nazareth. The owner of this potentially earth-shattering
find, who has been interrogated by Israeli officials, reportedly
says he bought it for a few hundred dollars in the 1970s from a
dealer who, in turn, most likely acquired it from a professional
grave robber. (Some experts dispute the ossuary's significance, and
still others have suggested it is a fake.)
Raiders of the West Bank
The bigger problem these days, though, is outside the IAA's
jurisdiction, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Authorities in
Israel say there's been a noticeable rise in the plundering of
archaeological treasures in the territory, where unemployment runs
as high as 40 percent and, because of current political tensions,
many Palestinians are no longer allowed to work in Israel.
"We see the results of the destruction of archaeological sites
[in the West Bank] as thousands of pieces make their way to the
shops here in Jerusalem," says Kehati.
As sites in the West Bank are being emptied, it appears more
Palestinians are taking the risk of crossing the politically
sensitive "Green Line" that separates Israel from the West Bank, in
search of more promising places to dig. A rise in poverty is a
likely motive. Last year, the IAA's anti-theft unit reported that it
caught a Palestinian Authority policeman digging within Israel to
supplement his meager wages.
The Palestinian Authority (PA), for its part, set up an
antiquities department after the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords
with Israel in 1993. But critics in Israel say its ability to stop
theft has been limited and that digging continues unabated in many
Palestinian-controlled areas. The PA's Ministry of Culture counts
some 1,600 major archaeological sites in the West Bank and Gaza
Strip, but the authority has not enacted legislation to regulate
Adel Yahya, an archaeologist with the Palestinian Association for
Cultural Exchange, recently told the American press that the level
of destruction of archaeological sites has dramatically increased.
"Places excavated in previous years have been abandoned and are not
protected," he said. Some observers have argued that the presence of
Israeli troops impedes Palestinian access to some sites. …