Israeli Life: Underground Alliance
Should there be legal incentives for unearthing and displaying Israelite antiquities? Without them, surprising partnerships set the agenda.
Moshe* looks out his car window into the golden hills and valleys of the West Bank and waves his arm excitedly. “This is one of the biggest garbage dumps in the world,” he says, laughing.
He wasn’t passing judgment on the Palestinian villages but sharing an archaeological secret: An area that has been inhabited for thousands of years accumulates generations of organic garbage—agricultural and animal waste—that has decomposed into nitrate.
“Nitrate-rich soil is darker,” explains Moshe. “The grayer the soil, the more people lived on it and for a longer period.”
Descended from a long line of regional metal, stone and ceramic traders, Moshe inherited a virtual bag of such tricks for finding and classifying underground treasures like ancient tools, utensils, pottery, weapons and jewelry.
Rushing as he illegally crosses from his native Israel to a village near Nablus, Moshe feverishly recounts the history and secrets of landmark after landmark, while constantly looking over his shoulder. For security reasons, in recent years Israel has barred citizens from the territories, but as a fervent antiquities hunter and seller, Moshe goes anyway, pretending he is heading to or from Jewish settlements. By doing so, he not only risks being caught by Israeli or Palestinian police for trespassing or by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) for smuggling, but also chances a run-in with Hamas, which had a stronghold in the area he is headed to well before its triumph in January’s Palestinian elections. He risks fines, jail, a beating or worse for his secret rendezvous with a Palestinian digger and seller.
Shared archaeological skills, interests and risks have long created unusual alliances. When the second intifada began in late 2000, fewer Israelis ventured into Palestinian areas because of dangers and restrictions and also because incentives dried up. Israeli dealers lost thousands of dollars as tourism died and stock gathered dust. Today, despite bolstered tourism, economic recovery remains slow.
For Palestinians, closures that led to high unemployment sent dozens of locals digging for backyard treasure. While farmers and shepherds have always excavated their lands, at the intifada’s peak, out-of-work doctors, lawyers and waiters joined in, turning the foothills into what Moshe describes as Emmentaler cheese.
According to the IAA antitheft unit, 1,000-plus Israelis and Palestinians are working illegally in the business, especially in the area where Moshe is heading.
On his secluded porch behind an ancient olive grove, Ahmed*, a Palestinian digger, rubs his bushy black beard and motions for his guests to sit, more instruction than invitation. “My wife prepared lunch,” he says as an anonymous arm passes food through the porch window. Aromas from a casserole of freshly slaughtered goat baked with okra, tomatoes and cumin mingle in the air with the smell of plants and farm animals.
Framing Ahmed are the surrounding foothills that sit on a site that nearly 3,000 years ago was ancient Samaria, capital of the Israelite Kingdom. In underground layers lie clues to the struggles of at least 10 periods: Canaanite, Israelite, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Hasmonean, Samaritan, Roman and Byzantine. If one digs deep enough to get to an earlier period, however, it may destroy evidence from another.
“There are no more coins or finds left on the surface…so they dig with tractors to go deeper,” Moshe says, annoyed. A shepherd like Ahmed, however, has the skills and knowledge and, says Moshe, is especially talented. “Believe me, Palestinians live so close to the land they can sniff out treasure better than archaeologists,” he adds. “They don’t need a degree, they just know how to read plant and soil patterns.” Ahmed—who digs from part love of the hunt and part poverty—smiles. In his pressed oxford shirt and wire-frame glasses, Eeyad*, a Palestinian middleman, nods in agreement.
The few lucky diggers who can sell an artifact might make a few hundred dollars every few months. A small number of middlemen—wealthier and more educated than those they buy from—buy cheap and sell for profits to dealers. Of them, some might have a windfall, selling an artifact for as much as $10,000 or more.
Since israel ceded parts of the west bank to palestinian control under the Oslo Accords of 1993, archaeologists have worried about the destruction of sites by diggers who don’t know the rules for excavating, recording and preserving, explains archaeologist and tour guide Ronen Bidan. “Who rules the land doesn’t matter as long as it is being preserved,” he asserts. (IAA rules extend to Palestinian-ruled areas.)
Since the intifada, says the IAA’s Ron Kehati, illegal digs have increased “1,000 percent or more [mostly] because of the economic situation…. There is no market in the West Bank, and artifacts do not end up documented or exhibited but sold for profit. Most get smuggled first to Israel and end up in the hands of tourists, collectors or museums.” Locals say that since last summer, Palestinian police have been cracking down on antiquities thieves, but archaeologist Yuval Peleg of the Judea and Samaria Civil Administration says there is still a lot of stealing.
“Nothing has changed,” he laments.
The area falls under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, which set up a struggling antiquities authority after Oslo. Palestinian archaeologists acknowledge the difficulty of protecting local sites from plunder and destruction. At a World Archaeological Congress meeting, the Palestinians presented a paper explaining that their heritage work suffers from a shortage of funds and trained staff, the inability to oversee comprehensive programs because of curfews, Israeli Army incursions, travel restrictions between villages and interference by Israeli soldiers on patrol. The long-term effect of the changing Palestinian leadership also remains in question.
Israel and the West Bank cover rich archaeological grounds, but both administrations lack funding to dig, document and guard extensively from plundering.
No legal dig is under way near Ahmed’s village, but he stays busy. After lunch is cleared and local gossip shared, Ahmed lovingly places his latest finds around the porch—muddy clay vases, coins, chalices, tiny figurines and hand-crafted stone arrowheads—and everyone bends over to touch and even smell them. Moshe turns a pale terra cotta water jug over in his hands. “These are a dime a dozen,” he says. “But the rest is nice.”
As in the shuk, Moshe, Ahmed and Eeyad begin to haggle gently. “Two thousand [dollars] for the lot,” Moshe says after a long silence.
“What, are you crazy?” asks Eeyad. “It’s worth a lot more than that. Don’t you trust me?”
“No,” says Moshe, then adds, “Just kidding.”
“Make it $3,000,” replies Eeyad. “Deal?”
Later, Moshe will berate himself for losing his poker face and oohing and aahing over a few rare pieces. The deal is settled as it always is: exactly in the middle of the two offers—at $2,500—and sealed with black, cardamom-laced coffee. It gives Moshe the caffeine jitters, but he gulps it down to comply with local etiquette.
Moshe, who is licensed to sell but buys wherever he can, says he always acts in “the best interest of the artifacts”; he donates objects to Israeli museums and universities and sells the best and most important pieces to Jewish collectors who often donate them to museums. He sells common pieces like oil lamps and coins to tourists.
Like other Israeli archaeologists, Moshe worries that Israelite antiquities found in the West Bank could be returned to Palestinians in a peace arrangement. There are precedents for his concerns about the ultimate disposition of these finds. When Israel returned the Sinai to Egypt, it also returned all state-owned artifacts from excavations.
“I’m not giving my stuff back to the Palestinians [who will sell it abroad],” he says, explaining that they would then be lost forever. “I’m bringing Jewish history back to Israel where it will be preserved.”
Moshe’s philosophy derives in part from the policies he sees in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan—where all antiquities trading is illegal and the black markets thrive, with valuables often being sold abroad. Many important museum collections have been created this way, and in Israel that may also be the case as Israeli laws create a Catch-22.
The IAA licenses buying and selling merchandise. (Licensed dealers can import goods and can legally buy from other licensed Israeli dealers and private Israeli collectors with identification numbers.) But since 1978, all relics dated prior to 1700 are considered state property, even if found on private land. In the past, locals and even public figures like Teddy Kollek and Moshe Dayan were known for their love of hunting and collecting antiquities. “Israel was a young country, rich in history and archaeology,” says collector Lisa Chaya, “and Zionists were excited about it and explored more—some politicians and even archaeologists made and kept private collections. Maybe archaeology was the Zionist way to establish nonreligious Jewish history. It gave a secular reason for Jews to live here, showing that we lived here before.”
Today, archaeologists complain there is not enough money for digs, and the 52 legal dealers argue that the laws strangle them. “Why is everything state property?” asks licensed dealer Eli Ben David. “It’s hard to find artifacts. The only people who find them anymore are Arabs—and they sell everything.”
As a result of the 1978 regulations, scores of artifacts were confiscated, catalogued and locked in storage. With limited display space, only a small number are exhibited. Stock is eventually rotated, but dealers assert that the supply of legal merchandise is so minuscule it’s preferable to have certain items on the market and on display—even if they were found illegally. “If the Arabs sell [what they find and Israel] puts everything in warehouses, there will be nothing left,” says Ben David.
Dealers also charge that illegally found items won’t end up in the hands of the state—unless dealers turn them over. Yet if a dealer admits he buys from an illegal seller, he must turn the seller in. After years of building trust, most buyers don’t want to betray their sources.
When illegally found artifacts make their way into Israeli shops, dealers like Moshe say it is a good thing. “Having a controlled but legal market is preferable,” he explains. “[You get] to hear about truly important pieces.
“It’s impossible to stop people from digging, so at least we get to publish the findings, show stuff to archaeologists and give to museums. In Egypt, where it’s illegal…it all gets sold outside [the country] and not shown at all.”
Meanwhile, after a 10-year alliance, Moshe, who had never met a Palestinian farmer before Ahmed, and Ahmed, whose only previous contact with Israelis was with soldiers, today watch each other’s back.
After lunch they walk the hills, where Ahmed picks plums, apricots and herbs. “It’s the best earth….natural fertilizer,” he says, explaining that nitrate-rich soil is not only a marker for buried antiquities but yields sweet and flavorful produce.
Ahmed knows the land’s secrets. He finishes an apricot and, smiling, cracks the pit against a rock to offer in his palm the edible nut hidden inside.