Archaeological dig
Archaeological digIsrael news photo courtesy Dr. Shay Bar

The Antiquities Authority on Monday announced that it had arrested three Arabs from the Hevron area who were involved in the theft of antiquities. The Arabs were caught red-handed with some of the goods that they had stolen from an archaeological site in Beit Shemesh.

The three apparently snuck in into the central Israeli city over the weekend under cover of darkness, riding on donkeys. The donkeys, which were found with the thieves, carried food and supplies, sleeping bags, as well as digging tools. The thieves were able to sneak into Israel in a mountainous area of the Hevron Hills, where the security fence has not yet been completed, officials said.

Antiquities Authority officials detected the Arabs shortly after they entered Israel, and observed them as they dug for treasure in the Hurbat Um Raus dig in Ramat Beit Shemesh. They were arrested as they were digging. Officials found several pieces of ancient metal and other objects in their possession. They were arrested by Border Guard officers.

During their interrogation, the three denied that they were antiquities thieves, and claimed that they were on a mission to gather sage, an herb they say they used in various herbal treatments.

However, according to the law, harvesting sage is a crime as well. In addition, officials said, early autumn, before the serious rain begins in Israel, is the wrong time of the year to be harvesting sage, as the herbs currently in the field are dry and cannot be used in herbal medicine treatments. The three are to be indicted in the coming days, prosecutors said.

Hurbat Um Raus is considered an important historical dig, and contains the remains of a large town that was built during the Hellenistic period, approximately 2,300 years ago. It was inhabited until about 1,400 years ago. Among the important finds at the site is a well-appointed mikveh (Jewish ritual bath).

The incident highlights concerns by residents of the northeastern Negev over the rate of infiltration by Arabs from Palestinian Authority-controlled areas, particularly around the Hevron Hills region.