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Tomb-raiding tradition thriving in West Bank

Treasures provide income to villagers

Mountasser Moussa, 7, displayed ancient coins he found in the West Bank. Mountasser Moussa, 7, displayed ancient coins he found in the West Bank. (David Blumenfeld for the boston Globe)

HERODION, West Bank -- At least two nights a week, Abu Moussa, the mukhtar of a small Bedouin village you won't find on a map, takes his sleeping bag, tools, and a small group of men and heads into the Judean hills to practice the trade passed down from his father and grandfather before him -- raiding ancient tombs for treasures.

The tradition goes back centuries, though today it is considered illegal by both Israeli and Palestinian police. But as the Palestinian economy crumbles in the face of Israeli security restrictions and crippling international sanctions against the Hamas-led government of the Palestinian Authority, the ancient treasures buried in the biblical landscape have become a major source of income for many residents of the West Bank.

"The mountains and valleys in this area are full of caves. All the boys and men in the village search the caves to look for antiquities, and they bring whatever they find to me, because I am the mukhtar, the leader of the village, and I know about all these things," the 50-year-old Abu Moussa told visitors to his tiny village southeast of Jerusalem, which residents call Herodion after the archeological site nearby. He displayed a table full of artifacts, including a 3,000-year-old Canaanite earthenware jug, several oil lamps and decorated bowls, and fistfuls of ancient coins, weights, and arrowheads.

"I take everything and I sell it to dealers in Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and we share the proceeds among all the village. This is how we support ourselves and make a living," he said.

The hamlet has 150 inhabitants, who until recently earned a living as shepherds, tending to the flocks and selling milk and cheese, or as day laborers in Israel. But since the start of the second Palestinian intifadah in September 2000, they have been unable to enter Israel, and the spiraling economic crisis has diminished the demand for their dairy products.

"We used to have 700 sheep in the village; now we have only about 100 left. I myself had more than 100 sheep and now I have only 15. We had to sell them or kill them for food because we have no money," Abu Moussa said. "Today these treasures are the main income for the village."

He said the most expensive piece he ever found was a coin from the Bar Kochba era, when the charismatic Shimon Bar Kochba led a failed Jewish revolt against the Romans from 132 to 135 AD.

"I sold that one for $15,000," he said. "But usually even the most expensive items are only worth about $300 to $400, and we might find one or two of them in a month," he said.

Sleeping by day and moving at night to escape the scrutiny of Israeli army patrols and Palestinian antiquities police, Abu Moussa and his men roam the mountains and valleys around Wadi Kareitoun, which winds from the first-century palace of Herodion through the Judean Desert to the Dead Sea about 15 miles away. The barren landscape is perforated with thousands of caves, many of them used as burial tombs dating to the Canaanite period about 3,000 years ago. Some are still sealed. Others were robbed long ago. Many contain the bones of poor hermits and shepherds, but others were used to bury wealthy people whose worldly goods were buried with them.

"Buried along with the bones are all sorts of coins, jugs, and jewelry," said Abu Moussa. "The ancient people believed in reincarnation and they thought that if they buried their possessions in the grave, they would have them to use when they came back to life. There are jugs and bowls and lamps. Sometimes the jugs and other items are full of gold coins."

The Israel Antiquities Authority says it has been trying for years to stop the activities of tomb raiders like Abu Moussa, but without success. Officials say the removal of archeological artifacts -- whether valuable or not -- from ancient tombs destroys their scientific value and hinders research.

Under Israeli law, all antiquities must be registered and cannot be sold to private collectors. But the law is widely flouted and vast quantities of ancient treasures are spirited out of the country to collectors abroad willing to pay ever-increasing prices. The Antiquities Authority has a special unit with police powers that patrols the areas under Israeli control to catch tomb robbers, and an intelligence network that tries to trace the movements of antiquities dug up from the Holy Land.

Since the withdrawal of Israel from large areas of the West Bank, the outbreak of the intifadah, and the building of the separation barrier, Israel has almost given up trying to police desert areas like the one where Abu Moussa operates. The Palestinians have a special Tourist and Antiquities Police, but they were never very vigilant, and with the breakdown of Palestinian Authority control under the Hamas government, they are usually ineffective.

Israeli officials declined to comment.

Abu Moussa is a traditional Bedouin mukhtar. He has two wives and 19 children, and on the belt of his robes he carries a well-greased shabriyeh, a traditional Bedouin dagger with a jewel-encrusted silver handle. He also has a small library of books on ancient coins and antiquities in English, German, and Hebrew.

"I have a metal detector, it's 80 years old. My grandfather got it from the British. This is now my profession. I can tell everything. I am an expert -- Byzantine, Roman, Islamic, Canaanite," he said.

On a rocky ledge just below his home is a cave whose entrance has been carved into a fine stone doorway. This old tomb has been empty for decades, but after just a few minutes searching among the rocks outside, Abu Moussa's children pick out more than a dozen items, including a Byzantine coin found by 7-year-old Mountasser. They hand the treasure to their father, who will sell it to the dealer the next time he calls.

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