(Photo: shutterstock)

In a dramatic operation on the cliffs of the Judean Desert, antiquities robbers were caught in action while trying to steal rare artifacts.

The caves in which the thieves were spotted. (Photo: IAA)

The caves in which the thieves were spotted. (Photo: IAA)

A ring of Arab antiquities thieves were caught red-handed while trying to plunder Dead Sea scrolls in a dramatic operation on the cliffs of the Judean Desert, Israel’s Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced. This is the first time in 30 years that antiquities robbers have been caught on the desert cliffs.

Indictments were handed down on Sunday against the robbers.

This comes in the wake of a dramatic capture carried out last weekend by inspectors of the Unit for the Prevention of Antiquities Robbery (UPAR) of the Israel Antiquities Authority, with the assistance of the Arad Rescue Unit. The apprehension of the robbers was part of a complex operation to locate the Dead Sea Scroll robbers, which lasted more than a year.

Members of the Arad Rescue Unit were conducting routine training in the early morning hours when they identified suspicious movement in the cavern known as “The Cave of the Skulls.” This cave is located in the northern cliff of Nahal Ze’elim, in the region of the Leopard’s Ascent, which can be reached only by a dangerous climb up the hill.

The UPAR was alerted to the scene, and they placed the cave under surveillance, using observation and photographic equipment. The suspects were observed in the cave carrying out an illicit excavation while using a metal detector and a large amount of excavating equipment to detect antiquities which have been there for centuries, preserved by the unique dry desert climate.

The IAA stresses that the robbers caused tremendous damage in the cave by digging through layers of earth while destroying archaeological strata and historical evidence from the Roman period 2,000 years ago and the Chalcolithic period 5,000 years ago.

UPAR inspectors waited for the thieves to come out of the cave and then ambushed them. The suspects, all young Arabs from the village of Seir in the vicinity of Hebron, were detained and taken for questioning to the Arad police station.

Major Arab Theft Ring Out of Business

Members of the unit on their way up ythe hill. (Photo: IAA)

Members of the UPAR unit on their way up the hill. (Photo: IAA)

UPAR director Amir Ganor stated:

“For many years now gangs of antiquities robbers have been operating along the Judean Desert cliffs. The robbers attempt to locate and find Dead Sea scrolls, pieces of ancient texts and unique artifacts that were left in the caves. These finds are sold for large sums of money in the antiquities markets in Israel and around the world. Over the years many of the plundered finds reached the antiquities markets in Israel and abroad, but it has been decades since perpetrators were caught red-handed. This is mainly due to the difficultly in detecting and catching them on the wild desert cliffs.”

The apprehended ring was one of the main groups of robbers that operated in the Judean Desert in recent years. The group had unique archaeological relics in its possession that had been plundered from the cave.
The UPAR reported that in the coming weeks additional suspects will be investigated in connection with the theft and destruction of antiquities sites in the region.

Excavating in antiquities sites without a license and destroying such sites constitute severe violations of the law in Israel, for which the law prescribes up to five years in prison.

By: United with Israel Staff

Tell us in the comments below: How do YOU think the law should address those who steal and profit from unique cultural artifacts?