Ancient Samarian site claimed by Palestinians damaged by treasure hunters

In a strange twist, the criminal work also uncovered a seemingly ancient water system that had not been discovered by any archeologists to date.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

A Roman-era amphitheater in the ancient Israelite Kingdom’s capital of Sebastia that has been claimed by Palestinians as part of their own heritage has been severely damaged by would-be robbers looking for items to sell.

Guides from Shomrim al Hanetzach (Guarding Posterity), a group that tries to protect and develop archeological sites in Israel so that Jewish heritage in Judea, Samaria and the Jordan Valley in particular do not get erased, located the destruction in the Shomron National Park. The current assumption is that the illegal work took place about a month ago.

Many steps and seats in the amphitheater were broken and even uprooted by the diggers in their search for ancient artifacts. It is considered one of the biggest and best-preserved theaters of its age and is a “site of vast importance,” Dr. Aaron Tavger of Ariel University’s Land of Israel Studies and Archaeology Department told Israel Hayom Wednesday.

In a strange twist, their criminal work also uncovered a seemingly ancient water system that had not been discovered by any archeologists to date.

The destruction has been announced by the Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry as well, since in November 2020 the Palestinian Authority unilaterally named Sebastia a Palestinian heritage site and started doing archeological work there funded by Belgium. In a Facebook post, the ministry said it had already started repairing the damage.

Both moves violate the terms of the Oslo Accords, as Sebastia is in Area C, under Israel’s full civilian and military control, and Samaria Regional Council head Yossi Dagan was angered by the announcement.

“For years, I have warned and cried out about the disgrace in ancient Samaria, but now it has reached a peak,” he said. “This place is under the authority of the [IDF] Civil Administration, but there is no enforcement, and there is no governance. The Palestinian Authority is conquering historic Jewish sites step by step.”

This isn’t the first time the amphitheater in Sebastia has been damaged. In July 2018, three would-be robbers were caught there working with metal detectors and excavation equipment. Their sentence could be considered more of a slap on the wrist than a deterrence, however, as they received 36 days in prison, with another nine months possible if they broke probation during the next three years, and a fine of NIS4,000 each.

Plundering archeological sites is a lucrative business and Israeli authorities are hard-pressed to keep up with the pace of the criminals. On Monday night they recorded a rare success, when Jerusalem detectives saw three Arabs who aroused their suspicions, and searched their cars only to find dozens of stolen items from the Roman and Byzantine periods. Some were confirmed by the Israel Antiquities Authority as being from the time of the Bar Kochba revolt nearly 2,000 years ago.