Photo Credit: Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit
The capture of the three antiquities looters, November 15, 2022.

Last Tuesday, the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit in the Israel Antiquities Authority caught a team of three antiquity robbers “on the job” while they were excavating and destroying historical layers in an Ottoman well next to the cemetery of the Bedouin city of Rahat in the Negev. The robbers are suspected of searching for a hidden treasure, which, according to a Bedouin myth, was buried in the well, inside a cave.

An inspector of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit removes a shovel left by the robbers. / Emil Eljam, Israel Antiquities Authority

The archaeological site of Horvat Maaravim, near Rahat, which features ancient remains from the Roman, Byzantine, Early Islamic, and Ottoman periods, was being watched by the IAA. On Tuesday, in the early evening, suspicious figures were seen approaching the site and entering the cave with the rock-hewn water well on the southern side of the site.

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The IAA Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit inspectors hurried to the site, and reached the cave entrance without being detected, to catch the robbers in the act of digging up the archaeological site.

The opening of the cave in Horvat Maaravim. / Emil Eljam, Israel Antiquities Authority

The suspects, in their twenties, were arrested—with the assistance of Border Patrol Police and the security staff of the Rahat municipality—and were taken for questioning overnight.

One of the looters had been arrested and charged for a similar offense in 2020 when he was placed on six-months probation and was fined NIS 30,000 ($8,735).

“After the summer heat, we witness an increase in antiquity robbing activities,” said IAA Director, Eli Escusido. “The Israel Antiquities Authority is busy combatting the phenomenon of antiquity theft day and night. The looters are motivated by greed, and they rip the finds from their archaeological context, damaging the country’s heritage.”

The Horvat Maaravim site near Rahat. / Emil Eljam, Israel Antiquities Authority

According to Amir Ganor, Director of the Antiquities Theft Prevention Unit, “It must be absolutely clear to the public that rumors of hidden treasures have no archaeological or historical basis. No treasure has been discovered to date, but irreparable damage has been done to the archaeological sites, undermining attempts to reconstruct the history of all the peoples of this country.”

The IAA communicated that damaging an archaeological site is a grave criminal offense, punishable by up to five years in prison.

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David writes news at JewishPress.com.