Antiquities thieves nabbed at Second Temple-era site

Three Palestinian suspects busted at Khirbat Umm er-Rus digging for coins; southern man arrested in possession of stolen antiquities

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Suspects in an alleged antiquities theft ring after arrest near Khirbat Umm er-Rus. (photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)
Suspects in an alleged antiquities theft ring after arrest near Khirbat Umm er-Rus. (photo credit: Israel Antiquities Authority)

Israeli police nabbed a group of antiquities thieves attempting to make off with artifacts dating back thousands of years.

A gang of three Palestinian suspects, arrested at Khirbat Umm er-Rus — a Second Temple-era site located in the Elah Valley, between the town of Avi’ever and the Green Line — were remanded in custody on Monday by Jerusalem District Court.

According to a statement published by the Israel Antiquities Authority, the three Palestinian men infiltrated into Israel through an as-yet-uncompleted section of the security fence last weekend. Two of the suspects are from the nearby village of Nahalin and the other is from Bethlehem. They are suspected of hunting for coins or other precious metals. Officers found food, camping gear, digging tools and metal detectors on their persons.

IAA supervisors spotted the suspects conducting an illegal excavation at the 2,000-year-old archaeological site and arrested them shortly thereafter. Inspectors found dozens of holes excavated by the men, who had managed to extract only small pieces of iron and bronze.

Khirbet Umm er-Rus is the remains of a Hellinistic, Roman and Byzantine-era town dating as far back as the third century BCE. The site contains dozens of buildings, caves and agricultural installations, as well as a ritually pure mikveh dating back to the Second Temple era. 

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The suspects claimed that they entered Israeli territory in order to collect sage, an herb they said has medicinal properties. Authorities were surprised by their testimony because at this time of year sage is dried out and not in plentiful supply.

Should the men be convicted of damaging the archaeological site, they could face up to five years in prison.

“Excavations without authorization in an archaeological site causes irreparable damage to the site, to investigation and to the history of each and every one of us, as strata of archaeology are harmed, the find is looted and disconnected from its context, and lost to humanity forever,” said Uzi Rotstein, the IAA’s supervisor for the prevention of antiquities theft

Speaking to The Times of Israel, Rotstein said one of the suspects had a criminal record for antiquities looting from 2009 after being caught in an archaeological site with a metal detector. He said he could not ascertain whether the suspects had made off with any antiquities besides the ones found during the arrest.

Rotstein noted that his department carries out approximately 30 busts per year on average.

In an unrelated incident, police arrested a man in southern Israel on Sunday for allegedly looting antiquities and attempting to sell them on the black market. The suspect was being held in Kiryat Gat pending trial. Among the antiquities recovered in the man’s apartment were small pieces of metal and pot sherds dating to the Second Temple era.

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