Norway launches probe after envoy’s driver caught smuggling artifacts
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Norway launches probe after envoy’s driver caught smuggling artifacts

Israel mum about ‘credible information’ that led to trove of artifacts hidden in diplomatic vehicle as it crossed Allenby Bridge from Jordan

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.

Antiquities found in a Norwegian diplomatic vehicle at the Allenby border crossing, May 31, 2016. (Israel Tax Authority)
Antiquities found in a Norwegian diplomatic vehicle at the Allenby border crossing, May 31, 2016. (Israel Tax Authority)

Norway on Monday said it is holding an internal investigation into claims that an East Jerusalem driver for its envoy to the Palestinian Authority was arrested last week by Israel for allegedly attempting to smuggle antiquities into the West Bank from Jordan.

The Norwegian Embassy in Israel told The Times of Israel on Monday that the Foreign Ministry asked the embassy for permission to search the diplomatic car as the driver arrived at the Allenby Bridge crossing on May 31, after Israel had received “concrete information” that there was contraband aboard. (An earlier report incorrectly stated, based on a statement by a Tax Authority official, that the car was driving from the West Bank into Jordan. The Norwegian Embassy clarified that the Mercedes was en route to Jerusalem.)

Customs officials found 10 kilograms of ancient coins, statuettes, beads and other artifacts stowed in cardboard containers inside the car’s paneling, an Israel Tax Authority spokesperson said.

The Foreign Ministry declined to comment on any details of the case. The Israel Antiquities Authority, which is responsible for theft of antiquities, also refused to comment on the incident.

Antiquities found in a Norwegian diplomatic vehicle on May 31, 2016 at the Allenby Crossing. (Israel Tax Authority)
Antiquities found in a Norwegian diplomatic vehicle at the Allenby border crossing, May 31, 2016. (Israel Tax Authority)

But a spokesperson for the Norwegian Foreign Ministry told The Times of Israel in a statement that “the request to search the diplomatic vehicle, which enjoys diplomatic immunity, was presented to the Norwegian Embassy in Israel by the Chief of Protocol of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“The embassy cooperated with the Israeli authorities and allowed the search under certain conditions, in line with established international practice,” the spokesman said.

“Norway takes this incident very seriously,” Norway’s mission in Tel Aviv said in an email. “We are aware that diplomatic vehicles from other missions have been subject to similar incidents. In addition to the handling by Israeli authorities, we have initiated an internal process.”

The Allenby Bridge border crossing seen from the Jordanian side. (photo credit: Courtesy Abutoum, Wikipedia)
The Allenby Bridge border crossing seen from the Jordanian side. (Courtesy Abutoum, Wikipedia)

Jerusalem refused to comment on whether this was the first incident in which diplomatic vehicles have been caught attempting to smuggle antiquities into Israel.

The vehicle’s driver, Issa Najam of the Beit Hanina neighborhood of East Jerusalem, was arrested during last week’s incident on suspicion of attempting to smuggle the artifacts, the Tax Authority said in a statement on Monday.

A Tax Authority spokesman said it was not protocol to search diplomatic vehicles at the crossing, and declined to comment on why the search was performed, on the grounds that the investigation into the incident was ongoing.

The spokesman said it was exceedingly rare for customs officials to find antiquities being smuggled into Israel at Allenby Bridge.

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court granted the suspect conditional release, per the request of customs and tax authorities after he posted bail.

Israeli customs officials handed the artifacts over to the Israel Antiquities Authority for an expert opinion. An IAA spokesperson later said that most of the coins were from the Hellenistic and Roman eras. The bulk were minted by Judea’s Hasmonean kings and by King Herod.

A Tax Authority official said an initial assessment found they are of “great value,” but was reluctant to be more exact.

Antiquities found in a Norwegian diplomatic vehicle on May 31, 2016 at the Allenby Crossing. (Israel Tax Authority)
Antiquities found in a Norwegian diplomatic vehicle at the Allenby border crossing, May 31, 2016. (Israel Tax Authority)
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