Published: December 2008
The Stolen Past
By Karen Lange
National Geographic Staff

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."

While some major sites remain unharmed —Herodium, for instance, is protected by a nearby Israeli military base—in many places the scale of the destruction is almost industrial. Looters attack ancient sites with backhoes and small bulldozers, scraping away the top layer of earth across areas the size of several football fields. Then, guided by metal detectors—coins often give away the location of other goods—they sink shafts to extract anything of value. Among the rock-hewn tombs that honeycomb the hills around Jenin, Nablus, Bethlehem, and Hebron, grave robbers methodically clean out each centuries-old chamber, dumping the bones and hauling off the limestone ossuaries.

In Sair, a town perched on a hillside northeast of Hebron, a middle-aged man speaks with pride of looting as his "work"—the only job he's ever known: "After the occupation [in 1967], when we were boys, there wasn't anything to do or anything to eat. So all of the people went to dig in the archaeological sites. And I saw what they could find." Four decades later, circumstances remain much the same. "Our economy is damaged," says another man who sells illicit antiquities. "We need to feed our families."

Palestinian law forbids looting of archaeological sites, as well as trade in, or possession of, antiquities. But the pillage proceeds unchecked. Sentences are light, typically a few weeks in jail. Critics say the Palestinian Authority could do more to educate its people about the value of their archaeological heritage. Yet both Palestinian and Israeli authorities are hindered by the West Bank's jigsaw of jurisdictional lines.

Under the 1993 Oslo Accords and subsequent agreements, Palestinian officers are supposed to have jurisdiction in cities, towns, and some large villages. They can also enter areas jointly controlled by the Palestinian Authority and Israel, but only after notifying the Israeli military. Entering territory governed solely by Israel (which encompasses some 60 percent of the West Bank) is, practically speaking, forbidden. Palestinian officers who risk going in usually keep a low profile, wearing plain clothes and carrying no weapons. Given such limitations, the outcomes are predictable.

A typical story: One night Namr Boja and five other Palestinian officers went unarmed to arrest villagers near Bethlehem who were digging through tombs. "We shouted, 'We are police! Stop!' " he recalls. "But they surrounded our group and attacked us with rocks."

Israeli soldiers, for their part, can rangeeverywhere. Yet because Palestinians consider any show of Israeli force in the West Bank a provocation, Israel's civil administration is reluctant to send soldiers to drive off looters. "We can't protect sites next to Palestinian villages," says an exasperated Yitzhak Magen, archaeological staff officer for Judaea and Samaria, Israel's term for the West Bank. "We can't go there."

The absence of Israeli patrols and restrictions on Palestinian police effectively leave archaeological sites unprotected, says Hamdan Taha, the Palestinian Authority's antiquities chief. "The system has collapsed."

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.