A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Alon (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
What is a typical day like for you?
I'm in charge of the area of the main road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, and 20 or 30 kilometers south. Each day, I move around to maybe 10, 12 sites. I get down under the ground, looking for signs of bandits.
Do you go to the same sites each time?
I have my usual sites...but the bandits, most of the time, work at night. They do not work in the daylight, especially not on very hot days. They leave signs, you know, cigarettes and bottles of water, things like that. Of course, they also leave signs of digging. When I find these signs I know, okay, here—I have a problem. Then, I start to act like a policeman.
Most of the sites on Alon's day patrol are far off the main roads.
(Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
In 2009, looters--the majority of whom are Palestinians--dug this hole as a hideout in an area full of ancient Jewish and Roman sites. Alon believes the finds from this area must be rich because after further investigation, he discovered that similar artifacts have been unearthed in Jerusalem.
(Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
I look for people I can talk to, ask if they saw something or can give me a clue. It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack. When I find enough clues, I start to work nights. Not alone, of course. I take maybe a friend from my unit, a policeman, someone like that, or a soldier if he really wants to come with me.
What do you do at night, then?
When we reach the site, we prepare to make an ambush. We wait for the bandits. And when they come...it's not so simple because usually the group is between three and seven people. Not all of them are working—maybe only half of them—and the other half is just "observing." You know, they watch because they're so afraid of us! That's why it's so difficult to catch them. Because when the first one hears us or sees us, he shouts, "Everyone leave everything!" Then they leave their tools, their baggage, their food—everything—and they run! They run through the night and we cannot catch them at night. Then it begins all over again.
Do they do all their work in just one night?
Maybe one night, maybe two. When there are three, four, five people, they can do it in six, seven hours.
So this goes on every night of the week?
Only if I know and I've found the special place they're working. Usually, we go out something like twice a week; or, if we need to, maybe four or five times a week. Sometimes, every night. During the day, I also talk with a lot of people. There are, in my area, maybe 1,000 sites. I cannot see every site. I cannot be on every site. So the more people I can talk with—tourists, policemen, soldiers—every person moving around in the area could help me.
How many people have you personally caught over the years?
More than 100. One night, I caught nine people. They were working in the complex "hiding" system. There is a very soft white rock here. You could easily take a hammer and an ax and make a tunnel. In ancient times, the Jews, to hide from the Romans, made a complex tunnel system under the ground, in the floors of their houses. When the Romans came, they took their families and went down into the tunnels. They took with them all their stuff—money, little glass bottles for perfume, oil lamps to make light, cooking pots—everything. And that's what the bandits are looking for—the hiding complex of the Jews. Today, the tunnels are used by the bandits. When the danger is gone, they come back out. They are looking for the artifacts of the Jews, which have the highest price of them all.
Alon compares the damage looters are capable of with their bare hands to that of a tractor. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
What is the price range?
Stuff we have a lot of—the price is low. Let's say that we have thousands and thousands of Roman coins. One coin, not much cost. But let's say we have a Jewish shequel from the day of the revolt. It would maybe make, I don't know, 100, 200, 300 shequels [$25-75]. This is something very, very valuable. This is what they find. And the damage they make to archaeological sites is something...I do not understand how a person with his bare hands can make such damage—like a tractor!
Who are the people looting these sites?
Most of the bandits I'm talking about, maybe 95 percent, are Palestinians. Maybe local people, Israelis, help them—bring them food, bring them water—but they sleep here in this area. No one can see if people sleep at night here, in the bushes or in the caves. And if they know that I know they're here—they go back! They go back and wait and wait—maybe a month, maybe two—meanwhile, they can walk around the occupied area or they can move 20, 30 kilometers from here. You know? And their big equipment is in the occupied area. There is no one there in charge there, no supervisor, like me. No supervisor at all. There, they can actually go in with their big tractors and move a whole site! It's terrible what happens in the occupied area.
Do you also monitor those sites?
I'm forbidden to work on the other side of the fence [the barrier between Israel and the West Bank].
Sounds like this whole area is rich in archaeology...
This area is very important. There also is a stream here in the Elah Valley where, in the Bible, it says, David took a stone and threw it at Goliath.
Do you have anybody to protect that site?
Ha...the tourists, they go down to the stream and collect the stones! They're not "usual" stones. They're "stream" stones that roll and roll and roll. They get very round, like ping-pong balls. The tourists just take them.
Have the sites here, on the Israeli side, ever been excavated by archaeologists?
Mostly, in this area, no one digs, unless, for example, a village wants to expand. So, construction begins with a bulldozer. If the IAA sees something, they begin to excavate.
How did you get into this work? What is your background?
I was an officer in the army. When I got released, I started to learn to be a tourist guide. One of my friends, Amir, who served with me in the army, worked at the IAA. He recommended me, told me about the importance of the artifacts, and I decided this is what I wanted to do. After that, I studied archaeology at university.
Is that why you feel so passionately about catching the looters?
The problem is not the stuff that is stolen. The problem is that the stuff must be found by archaeologists in situ. That's the meaning of archaeology. If you find a Roman lamp, but you don't find it in the Roman stratum, this is not archaeology. Other agencies, like the Italian Carabinieri, they don't work like we work. They are interested only in the objects, the stuff that was stolen. They do anything to bring the objects back. In Israel, it's the opposite. We care about the sites, the illegal excavations.
Sounds like your job is 24 hours a day. Do you ever sleep?
Oh yeah. Because the bandits don't work all the time. And if they reach a site and they know that we know they're there, they usually go back to the occupied territory.
Who does this land belong to?
Part of this is a national park. Part is, I believe, private. But most of the land is national.
When you go out at night, it must be very dangerous...
I'm not alone because these people can be...very aggressive. We must crawl like cats to catch them.
How do the looters know where the sites are?
The professional looters are better than me and better, even, than the best professors of archaeology. They know where the sites are from their experience. They "live" in the area. They walk by foot on every hill and under every branch and inside every cave. They can smell a site better than anyone who learns archaeology in the university that I know. They're "professional." I've caught, many times, a father and his son working together. And I've caught people whose grandfathers were caught 30 or 40 years ago.
How would you say things are today, as opposed to when their fathers or grandfathers were working?
Better because today we have the border, the fence. You know, the Israelis made a security fence because of the suicide bombers. We built the fence to make their lives very, very difficult. They can't enter Israel the way they entered before the fence. But there are something like 20 kilometers where the wall ends, where there is no fence. It's a 45-minute walk from the nearest Palestinian villages—that's it. So now, they all come to this point where we are now, where I work. And because of the very bad economic situation, even the Jews, the Israelis, sometimes help them to cross the border and then they hide them.
How many other people in Israel have your job?
Let's say, "not many," and that's all, okay? But you see, even the Israelis don't know about these sites. I and Amir—and now you—we're the only people who know about some of these sites. They're not on the main road. They're not in picnic areas. In Israel, we have thousands and thousands of sites like this. There may be more, but no one has even found them yet!
What is your favorite part of your job?
To catch the guys. I also like it when I have the chance to excavate a site. When I have maybe one month, one and a half months a year to excavate, it's okay.
A stone was rolled to seal the entrance to this Jewish grave that was looted some 2,000 years later. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
So you're usually by yourself during the day, right? Does it ever get lonely?
I used to bring my dog, but he's gone now. He was my best friend. In Israel, we have a supervisor for antiquity, a supervisor for the national park, and a supervisor for the preservation of nature—and they're all my friends. We meet, we drink a coffee. But yes, with a job like this, you need to be a different person. Not everyone likes to be alone all day, talking to the birds. The Bedouins are also my friends, the Arabs who come from the desert with their sheep. They live in tents.
Do you deal with other aspects of looting?
I also deal with forgeries. This is a big, big issue today. Suddenly, for example, an inscription reaches the market and no one knows where it came from, who excavated it. The merchants make a lot of money. It's a problem because it's faking the history of Israel.
Are the same people who are looting the same ones making the fakes?
I believe not. The people who are dealing with the looting are poor people, Palestinians who have no work. People who have no work, nothing to do, they'll try anything. Maybe this excavation will be his lucky day. Maybe he'll find a treasure, I don't know. But the forgeries, I believe, these are done by very intelligent people.
But you'd also have to know how to do it well, right, to sell it?
Yes, they are very intelligent. And maybe, if they're not intelligent, they have a lot of money to pay a professional forger to do it. To tell them what to do. To pay an expert or a professor. To tell the professional exactly what to forge.
Alon's "office" is a gray pickup truck. (Photo by Eti Bonn-Muller)
Are the materials so close to the original?
You need to take them to a laboratory.
Who's making the fakes?
The Palestinians, mostly, maybe also the Egyptians, the Jordanians.
Are the Israelis also involved?
I believe yes.
Do you think you'll ever catch everyone involved in looting here?
It's like trying to take out all the water from the sea with a spoon.
You have such a cool job...
Yeah, like a ranger in Yellowstone Park, eh? Well, not exactly