Some looted artifacts are bought by middlemen who supply shops in Israel, where tourists and pilgrims eager to take home a piece of the Holy Land unwittingly underwrite the trade. Other artifacts are smuggled into Jordan, then on to big-time dealers elsewhere in the Middle East, especially the Persian Gulf states of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Dealers in those countries, in turn, sell the artifacts to outlets in Israel without revealing their provenance.
In Jerusalem along the Via Dolorosa, the sorrowful path tradition says Jesus walked to his execution, looted antiquities are sold beside souvenir vials of blessed soil, water, and oil. Tiny ancient coins such as the mite the New Testament says a poor widow brought as her offering go for $100 and up. Fragile vases of rainbow-tinted glass designed to hold a Roman mourner's tears bring $700 to $1,000.
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) inspects shops and follows up on reports of looted antiquities—defined as any artifacts illegally excavated after the 1978 Antiquities Law took effect. The law requires that artifacts be tracked through assigned inventory numbers, but the rule is easy enough to get around, admits Amir Ganor, head of the IAA's Robbery Prevention Division. Dealers skirt the law either by buying "laundered" artifacts from the Gulf, or doing the laundering themselves by selling registered artifacts to tourists, then reassigning the inventory numbers to looted items that look similar. While tourists are supposed to obtain an export permit before leaving the country, most don't—because dealers often keep silent about the requirement. Some travelers are caught at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport, but most pass through undetected.
Alarmed by the spike in looting, Palestinian lawmakers have proposed increasing the maximum prison sentence for damaging archaeological sites from three years to five. Yet political circumstances and deep mutual distrust continue to hamper police on both sides of the border.
In January, Palestinian police slipped into the no-man's-land between an Israeli settlement and a Palestinian village near Bethlehem. There they caught an Israeli and a Palestinian in the middle of what police believe was an antiquities deal. Inside the Israeli's car they found a satchel full of ancient coins, jewelry, and glass. The officers' success was short-lived, however. The Palestinian spent less than two weeks in jail, and the Israeli was turned over to authorities in Israel—who then released him. He hadn't violated any Israeli law.