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Thieves Try to Sell Ancient Bones

July 5, 2005
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Israel’s Antiquities Authority announced that they had thwarted an attempt by two Jerusalem Arab men to sell four Second-Temple ossuaries—and the human bones inside—to Zaka, Israel’s volunteer rescue and recovery organization, for reburial.

The 2,000-year-old burial boxes, with Aramaic lettering on them, were dug up from an ancient Jewish cemetery located on the edge of the east Jerusalem village of Isawiya, the head of the Antiquities Authority’s antitheft division, Amir Ganor, said.

The two Jerusalem Arab men, who are brothers, then allegedly contacted Zaka, offering to sell the ossuaries—and the bones in them—for US $4,000, he said. In recent years of suicide bombings, the organization became widely known for its painstaking work in recovering human remains for burial, as required by Jewish law.

Zaka then contacted law-enforcement officials, who, in conjunction with the Antiquities Authority, arrested the two middle-aged suspects during the “deal.” The two, who have criminal records, have been released on bail. They will face multiple criminal charges of antiquities and property theft, Ganor said. In the meantime, the bones unearthed from the cemetery are being reburied by Zaka, while the ossuaries will be used as court evidence, he added.

About 300 archaeology thefts are detected each year in Israel, with the illicit antiquities trade on the black market in the country estimated to be running in the millions of dollars annually.

Despite the overall drop in violence in Israel, the number of antiquities thefts has risen more than 50% in the last year alone. In 2004, there were 314 reported cases of antiquities theft, compared to less than 200 in 2003.

The phenomenon of antiquities theft has taken on gold-rush dimensions, with an antiquities site now plundered every day on the average.

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