For a thousand years the ruins of Khirbet Tawas, a Byzantine jewel crowning a gentle slope planted in olive trees, stood southwest of Hebron. Graceful rows of columns stretched the length of the basilica, watching over the church's ornate mosaic floor. Then, in 2000, the second intifada struck with the force of an earthquake. As Palestinians fought Israeli troops, the West Bank became all but ungovernable. Soon the Israelis set up a web of security checkpoints, sealed off the region, and barred most Palestinians from working inside Israel. Jobless men looked for cash wherever they could find it. Armed with shovels, a small band descended on Khirbet Tawas.
With ruthless efficiency the looters dug beneath each foundation and into every well and cistern, searching for anything they could sell: Byzantine coins, clay lamps, glass bracelets. In the process they toppled columns and riddled the site with holes, erasing the outlines of walls and doorways—and the only surviving record of thousands of ancient lives. What was once an archaeological treasure and tour stop became a moonscape of craters and rubble. Abu Mohrez, a local imam and shopkeeper, begged the looters to stop, to no avail. He places his hand over his heart and grimaces with regret. "They wrecked the place, and it used to be beautiful."
Since the start of the second intifada, looters have overrun not just Khirbet Tawas but countless other archaeological sites that crowd the West Bank (map, opposite). Few jobs, inadequate law enforcement by both Palestinian and Israeli authorities, and demand for artifacts just across the border in Israel have created the perfect setting for looting, says Morag Kersel, an expert at the University of Toronto on the illegal antiquities trade.
The West Bank is a cradle of civilization, of farming and settled towns. It is also a crossroads of empires. Down its spine of low, stony hills marched the armies of ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. And for billions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, it is sacred ground: the land Abraham sojourned in, Moses pressed toward, Joshua claimed, and David and Solomon ruled in glory; the place where God became flesh; the holy center to which the Prophet Muhammad took his mystical nighttime journey. Yet this priceless legacy is swiftly being lost. "Years from now, I don't know what archaeologists will find when they do excavations here," laments Salah Al-Houdalieh, director of the Archaeology Institute at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. "They are destroying a cultural heritage that belongs to every Palestinian, to every human being."