A watchful hiker spotted suspicious digging near the northern Israel town of Tzippori this weekend, leading to the arrest of a gang of antiquities robbers.

In a joint operation between the Israel Antiquities Authority’s unit for theft prevention and local Jezreel Valley security officials, two out of three of the robbers were taken to the Nazareth jail for investigation. The suspects, both in their thirties and residents of Nazareth, were discovered with digging tools by the IAA team, which nabbed them after a chase on foot.

Head of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s theft prevention unit Amir Ganor said the success of this operation was due to the alert citizen citizen who, while out on a hike, recognized that the robbers’ activity was illegal in an antiquities site.

“Her watchfulness and her reporting to the Antiquities Authority made it possible to catch the criminals in action,” said Ganor. The hiker will receive a “good citizen” certificate, he said.

Opening to the underground system used for antiquities robbery close to the northern Israel archaeological site of Tsippori. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

Opening to the underground system used for antiquities robbery close to the northern Israel archaeological site of Tsippori. (Israel Antiquities Authority)

According to archaeologist Nir Distelfeld, the IAA’s theft prevention inspector for northern Israel, “We are witness to a lot of activity by gangs of antiquities robbers in the north. About two weeks ago, a similar gang was caught after having robbed graves in the Carmel region, and already, this Shabbat, another gang was caught in the Tzippori region.”

Tzippori, also known as Sepphoris, is located about six kilometers (some four miles) from Nazareth in the Galilee region. In addition to a well-known national archaeological park featuring a mosaic with the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee,” the area is known for its archaeological diversity, with findings with Hellenistic, Jewish, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader, Arabic and Ottoman influences.

Mona Lisa of the Galilee (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Mona Lisa of the Galilee (Shmuel Bar-Am)

“The northern region is filled with thousands of antiquities sites, and the mission to protect them from theft and plundering, is complicated and challenging,” said Distelfeld.

“It appears that neither heat nor Ramadan fasting prevents the robbers from going out and trying their luck at looting ancient treasures. In the latest occurrences, we succeeded in preventing continuing damage to the antiquities sites, which are everyone’s heritage,” said Distelfeld.

Damaging an archaeological site is a crime punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment.

In recent months, the IAA has increased its activities against antiquities robbers across Israel, and especially in the north, said Ganor. “We are utilizing many volunteers for the area, as well as border patrol volunteers, and working to respond quickly to all information given to us from the general public,” he said.

The IAA requests the public’s assistance in reporting any suspicious activity at antiquities sites.

“Help us protect our heritage,” said Ganor.