Three Palestinians were sent to 36 days in prison on Tuesday for damaging and attempting to rob a major archaeological site in the northern West Bank last month.
The men, whose names haven’t been released, were arrested at 1:00 a.m. on July 18 at the location of the ancient town of Sebastia, which contains overlapping layers of history dating back nearly 3,000 years.
They were caught by an inspector for the archaeology division of the Civil Administration, the Israeli body that oversees civilian affairs in the West Bank, while carrying digging equipment and a metal detector. The site, just outside the city of Nablus, was found vandalized, Hebrew-language media reported.
A hilltop capital of biblical kings later ruled by Roman conquerors, crusaders, and Ottomans, Sebastia — also known nowadays as the Samaria National Park — is caught between conflicting Israeli and Palestinian jurisdictions, and the site has been largely neglected by both sides for the past two decades. Beyond the decay, unauthorized diggers and thieves have taken advantage of the lack of oversight to make off with priceless artifacts.
The Palestinian men were arrested and held in detention, and on July 29 were charged at the Samaria Military Court with causing damage to an antiquities site and digging at one without a permit.
On Tuesday the court handed them a 36-day jail sentence each, along with a fine of NIS 4,000 ($1,100) each, and a suspended sentence of nine months in prison if they commit a similar offense within three years.
Binyamin Har Even, an official in the Civil Administration’s Archaeology Unit, said that “the law enforcement bodies will continue to employ all the tools they have to arrest and prosecute the criminals who harm important parts of history such as Sebastia.”
Sebastia served as the capital of the biblical Kingdom of Israel in the 8th and 9th centuries B.C. Alexander the great, King Herod, and Medieval Islamic rulers have all left their marks. According to tradition, the town is also the burial-place of John the Baptist, revered by both Christians and Muslims.
The remains extend from the present-day Palestinian village of Sebastia and up a nearby hill to the site of the ancient capital of Samaria at the top — around a square kilometer that includes a crusader cathedral, an ancient Roman city boasting a forum, a colonnaded street and a temple to Emperor Augustus, and the remains of the palace of Omri, the 9th century ruler of the Kingdom of Israel.
Most of the ruins lie in areas under full Israeli control, with some in areas under Palestinian civilian control but shared security responsibilities under the 1990s Oslo deals that divvied up the West Bank into zones of authority. The Palestinians claim all of the West Bank, captured by Israel from Jordan in 1967, as part of a future state.
AP contributed to this report.