Ramallah – At a time when the Palestinian Authority warns of the Israeli occupation stealing the Gaza Strip’s antiquities during its ongoing aggression since October 7, the reality in the West Bank is not much different. The West Bank's antiquities have become easy prey for the occupation, sometimes by Palestinian hands.
In its session last week, the Palestinian government decided to form a committee headed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Expatriates, which includes the Ministries of Tourism, Justice and Culture, “to follow up on the theft by the occupation authorities of museum collections and antiquities during the ongoing aggression on the Gaza Strip, and to follow up on the issue globally in communication with UNESCO.”
On Thursday, the occupation army destroyed the building of Al-Isra University in Gaza, including the National Museum licensed by the Ministry of Antiquities, which the university established as the first museum nationwide, and which contained more than 3,000 rare artifacts.
The university and the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities accused the Israeli army of “looting it before blowing up the museum building to cover up the effects of their crime.”
This is in Gaza, but what is happening in the West Bank is no less important, as archaeological sites and contexts are being destroyed forever, so what is happening?
Search and sell
With the start of the aggression on Gaza, the economy in the West Bank was largely disrupted, and tens of thousands of Palestinians joined the already long unemployment queue, including tens of thousands who were working inside Israel.
Workers and others who were stranded spread out to archaeological sites to search for earthly treasures to sell and save some money to support their families.
Al Jazeera Net closely followed the search operations in the West Bank, and witnessed the spread of dozens of them, using simple tools and metal detectors.
The sixty-year-old man, M.H., waited for weeks in the hope that the war would end and that he would return to his work in the field of agriculture within the Green Line, which he resorted to after retiring from his government job, as work to support his retirement income.
Abu Ayman says that the war lasted for a long time, and he and his six children were in great distress due to lack of money. They decided to search for antiquities in areas that had previously been excavated, and antiquities from various eras had already been found.
Abu Ayman recalls the atmosphere of the Gulf War in the early 1990s; As the occupation imposed a closure on the West Bank that lasted for several months, people rushed to search for antiquities and sell them to save money, indicating that most of the research is currently focused on “re-imagining” the excavated soil because most of the antiquities have been extracted and sold previously.
In addition to his sons, he says that they have other partners, who work in two teams, one during the day and the other at night, and what is found is shared by the partners.
Al Jazeera Net was able to photograph various possessions belonging to some citizens and merchants dating back to different eras, with varying estimates of their prices.
These antiquities and their value vary between coins, pottery, and copper vessels. Researchers and merchants know the era to which they belong, according to signs they recognize through experience.
According to antiquities dealer “A,” who refused to reveal his name, all the items found are sold to Arab or Israeli dealers within the Green Line, and end up in the country. Israeli museums.
Regarding evaluating the price of archaeological objects and minerals, he says that the citizen sends pictures of the objects he finds to the merchant, who in turn transfers them to the Israeli merchant, who displays them to several museums, and then determines their purchase price.
He added, “Intermediary dealers in selling antiquities often sell the pieces for double the amount for which they were purchased.”
He points out that the prices of antiquities may reach hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on their type, whether they are gold or not, and the era to which they belong, and the least expensive are those dating back to the Islamic era unless they are gold.
He explains that the antiquities found usually date back to the Greek, Roman and Islamic eras, but the Israeli “figure” and any pottery with Hebrew writing on it rank first in price.
The merchant claims that all categories of the Palestinian people in the West Bank are searching for antiquities, including government employees, explaining that only 2% of researchers actually find important and valuable antiquities.
Most of the search operations are located in Area C, which is under Israeli control, which constitutes about 60% of the West Bank, and the Palestinian police cannot reach it.
Al Jazeera Net learned that government agencies have entrusted municipalities with the task of following up on the research and preventing it, but municipalities lack control and executive power.
Regarding the dangers of what is happening, former Undersecretary of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, Dr. Hamdan Tala, told Al Jazeera Net that the unorganized search for antiquities taking place is one of the “disastrous phenomena” of the Israeli closure and deprivation of Palestinians of freedom of movement, which has been repeated in the past, especially the early 1990s.
He added that some people search for antiquities in archaeological sites to sell them and provide a living, but this causes “the irreversible destruction of archaeological contexts in ruins and archaeological hills.”
In addition to destroying the sites forever, Taha says, “The fate of the antiquities found will be in the hands of an intermediate circle of merchants, the end of which will be the Israeli market, in a real scientific loss and waste of Palestinian archaeological resources.”
In response to the absence of the presence and influence of the Palestinian Authority in Area C, where most of the archaeological sites are located, the Palestinian expert says that Israel is not concerned with protecting these sites and turns a blind eye to those searching for antiquities there.
The law holds accountable
According to the sources of the Palestinian Ministry of Antiquities, there are more than 7,000 registered archaeological sites in the West Bank, and tens of thousands of historical monuments and sites, but most of them are located in Area C.
Palestinian law imposes “a penalty of not less than 7 years and not more than 10 years, and a fine of not less than 20,000 Jordanian dinars (about 28,000 dollars) and not more than 50,000 Jordanian dinars (about 70,000 dollars), or its equivalent.” Legally circulated currency, anyone who sells, buys, or trades any materials extracted from an established heritage, or conducts excavations or excavations in established heritage sites in search of golden burials or any other burials, even if they are in his private property.