Palestinian police on red alert over antiquities smuggling

Palestinian police say the Israeli-controlled Area C is their weak spot in the battle against antiquities smuggling.

al-monitor More than 10,000 pieces of Palestinian heritage in a small museum in Jerusalem. Photo by Saeed Qaq/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
Ahmad Melhem

Ahmad Melhem

@ahmadme44502893

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Archaeology

Jul 11, 2019

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Despite efforts by the Palestinian police, more and more antiquities in Palestine end up in the hands of the smugglers, the Palestinian police told Al-Monitor.

Hassan al-Jamal, chief of the Antiquity and Tourism Police, told Al-Monitor that antiquities smuggling has increased over the past year and that the Achilles' heel of smuggling is the Israeli-controlled Area C

“Smuggling exists in all areas of the West Bank, because the Palestinian Authority (PA) does not control the borders and Palestinian and Israeli security powers overlap, specifically in Area C territories,” he lamented. 

The 1995 Oslo II Accord divides the West Bank into Areas A, B and C. Area C, which consists of 61% of the West Bank, has many natural resources and is under Israel’s full administrative and security control.

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiques and the police — as well as many academic papers — say that more than 60% of archaeological sites in the Palestinian occupied territories are located in Area C. The sites in the area include Sebastia, a site that has been home to many civilizations since 876 B.C. and on the tentative heritage list of UNESCO. In this historical site north of Nablus, as in most sites in the area, the excavations are left as found, making it attractive for looters and smugglers, who do not only raid the artifacts but vandalize and damage the site.

The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism lacks accurate estimates on the amount of antiquities that smugglers have removed from the country. A detailed ministry study from 2010 estimated that an average of 100,000 pieces — big and small — were smuggled outside Palestine every year. The study said that 85% of these antiquities were smuggled to Israeli parties.

Over the course of 222 operations against smugglers, Palestinian police seized 5,061 historical and archaeological pieces before they were smuggled out of the West Bank between Jan. 1 and May 31, police spokesperson Louay Azriqat told Al-Monitor. The Palestinian police said April 28 that they had seized more than 24,200 antiquities in 2018 before they were smuggled out of the country.

Once a piece is smuggled abroad, the chances of finding and reclaiming it are limited, because most of the smuggled antiquities are not documented or registered at the National Palestinian Registry, Jamal said.

“The looters do not care about the archaeological or historical value. All they care about is how much and how easily they can sell the piece,” he said. The looters often carve out key pieces and care little if they destroy a larger — but unmovable — antique in the process, according to Jamal.

The artifacts that are found vary, and include pottery, ancient gold and silver coins, lamps, bracelets and ornaments. These items are sought out in ancient royal tombs, caves or abandoned and destroyed archaeological sites, specifically in Area C, which Palestinian police cannot access easily without coordination with the Israeli authorities.

According to the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Gaza and the West Bank are home to 7,000 archaeological sites and 50,000 historic buildings, and more than 60% of them are located in Area C.

Saleh Tawafsha, director of the Department for the Protection of Antiquities at the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor that antiquity thieves ruin archaeological sites. He expressed concern that the looters damage both the site and the layers underground, which should be excavated professionally and carefully.

Coins are among the most seized and smuggled antiquities, as they are easy to smuggle and to sell to collectors The coins and the other antiquities from the Roman era possess a large market of buyers, Tawafsha said.

Tawafsha told Al-Monitor that the PA has sought to impose a stronger legal framework to protect antiquities in recent years. The PA replaced the 1966 Jordanian Antiquity Law No. 51, which was applicable in Palestine, with a new law on antiquities and cultural heritage that passed in April 2018. Article 27 of the law states that "no person shall acquire illicitly, forge, destroy, ruin, tarnish, sell or trade in movable cultural heritage … or partake in any activities that might lead to smuggling or depriving movable heritage of its value.”

The potential penalty is imprisonment between seven and 10 years or a fine that ranges between 20,000 Jordanian dinars (around $29,000) and 50,000 dinars (around $72,000).

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