Karen Lange reports on the problem of antiquities looting in the West Bank for the December issue of National Geographic (via). Preventing looting of sites is a pressing problem everywhere, but these difficulties are more acute on the West Bank because of the ragged borders, dueling legal regimes of Israel and Palestine, and the lack of economic opportunity. Morag Kersel argues the demand for artifacts in Israel have helped fuel the demand for looting as well.
One Palestinian, Abu Mohrez, decried the damage done to Khirbet Tawas a Byzantine basilica “They wrecked the place, and it used to be beautiful.” Lange reports:
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.
The scene is a familiar one. Looters use backhoes, bulldozers and metal detectors to find coins and other metal objects. Graves are desecrated as well. How can these looters do such damage? One anonymous looter argues “We need to feed our families.” The legal framework does not appear to be the problem. Palestinian law forbids looting, as well as the possession and trade of antiquities. As one might imagine, Israeli soldiers aren’t a popular bunch in the Palestinian territories, and are unable to effectively police the ancient sites.
Once again there are a number of familiar culprits. The inability to police and guard sites, economic hardship, an antiquities trade which avoids detailed provenance, and a paucity of licitly excavated objects on the market.