A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Amir Ganor (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
What do you do?
I’m the head of the Robbery Prevention Unit of the Israel Antiquities Authority. It’s a kind of antiquities police. In Israel, we have many kinds of police. We have the “blue” police, the ordinary police that deals with all the criminals. And we have a special police for antiquities, and this is my unit. We are in charge of all the things that are connected to the Antiquities Law in Israel. Our major duty is to catch looters, to defend archaeological sites. You know, in Israel, we don’t have oil—but we have many archaeological sites. We have about 20,000 of them, all over the country. So it’s very difficult to watch each site all day. We need to take action to protect these sites against the looters coming to dig without license, to steal from them. This is one of the major things that we do.
What else do you do?
Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the law permits the sale of antiquities. It’s different for all the rest of the Middle East. They don’t have it in Egypt, Jordan, Turkey—no. In Israel we have 17 antiquities dealers that hold this license from the government. And we supervise them.
Is it possible for others to apply for the license?
It’s possible, but we prefer not to give out new licenses. This is something historical because the Antiquities Law started in Israel in 1978. Before, there was no law. This was a law from the British Empire. So those that had the license before ’78 continue to have the license. There have been only a few new licenses from ’78 until now. This is a problem for us because, you know, on one hand, all the antiquities in Israel belong to the state. On the other hand, the state gives permission to sell antiquities. We assume that most of the items in the hands of the dealers were stolen or taken from the sites. We handle those dealers and we fight against the looters and against the middlemen, the people who connect the looters to the dealers. We work like police—we conduct interrogations and try to catch the looters red-handed.
How do you do that?
We’re a special unit. Most of the people in this unit are officers and reserve officers. So we work like an army using the same methods, like ambush. We work undercover. We use special equipment like night-vision binoculars and other things. And we try to catch them when they are doing the digging. Because we have a lot of archaeological sites, and we can’t put a guard at each site all day, we try to know about what they plan before they go to a site. One of our branches acts like the army, another does all the things the police do, and the third is the intelligence. We have many sources of information. Many people work for us, give us information, give us news from the field, from other places. We try to catch all the picture of what is going on in Israel.
How many people would you say are involved in looting in Israel?
It’s a kind of mafia, like organized crime. It’s a business. And there can be a lot of money at stake. Each piece of antiquity has a value. Some can find a coin, and the value is $2. Others can find a coin and get $400,000 for it. For example, if you dig in a tomb from the Iron Age, you can find thousands of items in one cave. When the looters find an underground cave or tomb, they need only to find the door. When they come inside, they need only to pick up the items. Here, for example, in the Old City of Jerusalem, in the neighborhood of Silwan, looters had to dig only two meters, and they found a door to a cave from the Second Temple period, from the “Jesus period.” Inside, they found ossuaries and bones, as well as jewelry, oil lamps, glass bottles, many items. In one cave you can find 200 oil lamps! Each lamp you can sell for about 200 sheqels [about $50]. It’s a lot of money for them. And if the oil lamps have a special decoration, it’s possible to go up to $10,000 for each.
The Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan, where looters found a Second Temple period tomb full of ossuaries, jewelry, oil lamps, and glass bottles (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
How, exactly, do the looters work?
Usually, they work in groups. Each group has between eight and ten people, most of them coming from the West Bank, where there are a lot of villagers who specialize in digging antiquities. These are operations for generations. Before Israel built the defense wall, it was easy to pass between Israel and the West Bank. So now they work beside the Green Line, the border between Israel and the West Bank. In the years after we built the defense wall, they began using Israeli...they have a cooperation between Israeli Arabs and Israelis. They work together. They meet in the West Bank, and the Israeli guy comes with his car and takes them all over the country. So it’s now more difficult to catch them because before what we would do is ambush them in the West Bank, on the border in the hills. And if we saw some looters coming inside, we could duck easily. We watch, we see where they’re going to dig, and we catch them red-handed. But it’s difficult to see with the Israeli guy in the car, to see who the Israeli is who works with them, to know his car, to make surveillance on him, to watch him.
What do they do when they get “inside”?
There was one guy we caught who was with a group of six or seven people. Usually, they come with their tools, with their metal detectors. The metal detector is like a weapon for them. It’s very important to them because it helps them find the coins, the treasures. So they come with the tools, usually during the night, and they find a place to dig. Before they come to dig, though, they send people, one or two, to find the place. They are very good experts in archaeology because they know how to find things under the ground. They look for how the rock is cut. They watch the indentation. They watch the water. They know how to do it. This is the base of the pyramid, the looters. We have looters who work under the ground. But we have also looters who work under the water. We have, you know, the coast of Israel is between Egypt and Lebanon. They started shipping in the Middle East in the third millennium B.C. The coast was the road between Egypt and Lebanon. Thousands of ships sank along the coast of Israel and are on the bottom of the sea. Some people here, most of them are Israelis, dive to those ships. And they collect the items, like bronze vessels.
And you do the same thing with them? You try to catch them red-handed?
After we know about a team that works together, we try to collect evidence. Sometimes, we send people undercover to dive with them. Sometimes we are watching from the beach to the sea. We have also a ship.
That’s a lot of territory to cover!
We have another problem, which is the collecting of the huge items like a wine press.
Someone would actually steal an entire wine press?
Yes! There are a lot of people here, especially rich people, who have private houses with gardens. They try to decorate their private houses so they go to the field and they find some oil press or capitals or corinths or something like that. They destroy the site and take the things. This is also a problem that we deal with. This is the base of the pyramid, the people who make the most damage to the site. You know, with archaeological sites, when you dig at a site, you destroy the site. Also, archaeologists destroy the site. But the difference between archaeologists and looters is that archaeologists do it using scientific methods and they leave a book on the shelf after that, they publish. The looters take the items. We never know what was there. And the damage—it’s unbelievable.
The streets of Jerusalem, where looted artifacts are often sold (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
What’s the next level of the pyramid?
The next level is the middlemen, the heads of the looters. In each village in the West Bank of Israel, there is one that was before a looter, but now he is a professional. He has the money because he earned a lot of money from the antiquities he looted. And now he sends the groups. He gives them their salaries because sometimes they dig all night and don’t find anything. So someone needs to pay them for the work! He pays the salaries and supplies the tools, the equipment, the metal detectors—because a metal detector in Israel is something like $1,500. It’s a lot of money for looters. So we have those middlemen who supply equipment, sometimes, for three or four groups of looters. And after the group finishes working at night and comes back to the village with all the things that they took, they give the things to the head, to the middleman. Sometimes they give him all of the things. Sometimes they give him...it depends on the relationship between them. And when the middleman finally has the items, he calls a few people and says, okay listen, last night we found some treasures or coins or oil lamps. Then he needs to move the materials. There are a few people in Israel...most of them are Israeli or people that can move directly from the West Bank to Israel without being “checked.”
Who are those people?
Sometimes, they are some Israeli Arabs or Israelis or Arabs from the West Bank who have permission to come to Israel without a problem. Sometimes, they’re connected to the government—informers or something like this. They come into the village and they offer the middleman a price. And there is usually a fight between the middlemen who offer the best price to pay for the items. They pay in cash. Everything is in cash. Then they take the items to the next part in the pyramid, the dealers.
Where are they?
Most of the 45 shops are here in the west part of Jerusalem, in the Old City. In Jerusalem, we have also Arabs and Christians who are dealing antiquities. When the shop owner buys the items from the middlemen, he needs to write the name of the items and give them an ID number. And then he can do what he wants with these items—sell them to tourists, to museums.
Incredible! And people buy these things?
You know, if there are thousands of tourists that want an oil lamp from the time of Jesus, the demand goes up. The dealer says to the middleman, I want oil lamps from the time of Jesus. The middleman says to the head of the group, find some tombs from the time of Jesus. This is the way it works.
When tourists buy antiquities in Jerusalem, the demand goes up and the looting intensifies. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
It’s not so dark because we’ve had many successful fights against them. Each year we catch between 100 to 150 people. Most of them go to jail. The law in Israel says that the damage to antiquities sites is five years in jail. But, you know, the judges, they’re like...I don’t know the word in English, but sometimes they’re very...they see this guy and they say, oh, he’s not so dangerous, maybe one year is enough for him in jail or maybe a few months are enough for him. The common punishment here in Israel is something between half a year and a year in jail for those people.
What about the middlemen?
The middlemen? Most of the punishment for them is high fines. For the dealers, it’s also a fine. And we take the items from the shops for the state. But the rich guys and the collectors, most of them are in the shadow. They don’t have any punishment because most of them are very rich and most of them are connected to...“some places.” They say, we didn’t know this was stolen property! We didn’t know. Okay, you said this was stolen property? Then take it for the state! I will lend things to museums...
But they know, right?
Of course, of course. You come from the United States, right? There are many examples of this. Also, we deal with many other things like, you know...sometimes antiquities are used to launder money, for example. We have groups of antiquities looters that are connected to terror. They use the money that they earn from the antiquities to buy weapons.
Where are they from?
Most of them are from the West Bank. We have many examples. Ten years ago, we caught a group that tried to sell a sarcophagus. The group was from the West Bank, from the area of Jenin. They tried to sell it. And this was a team of terrorists. Now they are in jail for a long time, but they tried to sell it for a lot of money.
My unit also deals with antiquities fakes. The most common example is the Ossuary of James, the brother of Jesus. That was our job. The Jehoash Tablet, that was also our job. The ivory pomegranate from the Israel Museum—now we know it was fake.
Ganor shares photos of his successful capture of looters and retrieval of antiquities. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
What was your involvement with these cases?
We were the unit that discovered the fakes and made all the interrogations. So, it’s part of our job. Most of the items...you know, in Israel, when a tourist wants to buy some items from a shop, he must bring them to our office for approval. Most of the time we have problems with people who try to take things out of Israel without permission.
How can you identify a fake, like the Ossuary of James, for example?
Well, it’s a huge story. First, we have the help of archaeologists but we have the story behind it, too. For example, sometimes we find a factory or the tools or the office that made the fake. And—we know! We work with laboratories. But, you know, sometimes you just smell something is a fake because you have so many years in this job and you know the shape, the item, it’s not an ordinary shape. Dealers in Israel must sell only good things. It’s against the law to sell fakes.
Sure, it’s fraud. Sometimes, tourists come here to ask for permission to take items outside of Israel. We see it and say, how much did you pay for this? They say, $1,000. We say, well, its value is $10 because it’s a fake. After that, we go to catch the dealer and take him to court because he’s a liar. It’s a problem.
Sounds like you have your hands full...
We deal also with groups of people that try to find gold—Turkish gold, Arab gold. There are a lot of people who believe there is buried treasure here in Israel, that the Turks, when they ran away from Israel in 1917, when the British conquered Israel, they hid a treasure here at one archaeological site. They put in the ground six or seven boxes with gold coins. And after they buried it, they prepared a map, and took it to Turkey, or somewhere else in the Middle East. They hoped to come back and retake the treasure after the war. But they never came back. That map is always in the market! Each year we have four or five groups that try to buy some map—most of them from Jordan or Turkey—and then they come here and they try to find the treasure. They use tractors and big machines...
Where are they looking?
Usually in open areas, in the hills. According to the legend, somewhere in Israel, there is this treasure. Most of the areas are beside train crossings. Sometimes the site is near a tree standing alone in a field. A legend is a legend, so they try to find it! We caught a group just two weeks ago, on a Friday morning, near Chemesh Hill. They brought a lot of equipment. And they came across an ancient water system. They had a special generator to try and take out all the water. And then they started to dig inside a hole underneath. Meanwhile, we prepared an ambush for them. After an hour, I heard a lot of noise. They were using a big pickax to destroy the wall of the water system. And I said to my guys, okay, that’s enough. Let’s go and catch them. And we caught them red-handed! And when I asked them in the interrogation, what were you looking for? Why did you take all this water? What are you doing here in the middle of nowhere? They said, we are trying to find the gold! One of them had a book, an ancient book, the Koran. Inside the ancient book, there was another small book. I saw it, and I read some Arabic in it, and I discovered this was a special book to fight against demons. I asked him, why do you need it? He said to me, okay, we thought that after we opened the door, some demon may come out. We needed something to protect us! We have also those kinds of stories.
The IAA’s Robbery Prevention headquarters are located in Jerusalem’s Rockefeller Museum. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
How often does your office get called to go out?
It depends. Last night, here in Jerusalem, we found some looters. Sometimes, we have something each night. Sometimes, we don’t have anything for two or three weeks. It depends on our intelligence and what we find in the area.
How big is the department?
We don’t say how many people we have. But in the IAA, we have 80 supervisors all over the country. We also work with blue police, with border patrol, with all the people who deal with antiquities, the national guard, all of them. We have a huge net. We cover Israel very well. We also have very good connections with other groups of enforcement, like Interpol, Scotland Yard, and the Italian Carabinieri. We work with a team of the FBI and a special team from Iraq. We have very good connections. And now we’ve also started to work with the Palestinians.
Are you hopeful, then, for the future?
If we separate the politics from the defending of antiquities, it will be okay.