JERUSALEM (AP) — Six Palestinians were charged in an Israeli court Sunday of digging illegally for antiquities in a remote desert region where archaeologists believe undiscovered Dead Sea Scrolls are buried, Israel's Antiquities Authority said.
The arrests came after a yearlong operation to stop looting in the Judean Desert, thought to be the source of scroll fragments which have recently trickled onto the local antiquities market, said Uzi Rotstein, an Israeli antiquities inspector.
Rotstein said he spotted the alleged antiquities looters by chance in late November He was in the desert training as a volunteer in a hiker rescue squad when he took a photograph of a far-off cave on the side of a cliff and noticed two men standing by it.
"No one has any business being there on a Saturday morning," said Rotstein.
He said the suspects climbed down a steep 70-meter descent to reach what is known to archaeologists as the previously excavated Cave of the Skulls, destroying archaeological strata in the cave dating back 5,000 years.
In the late afternoon, the six suspects, Palestinian men from the West Bank village of Sair near Hebron, climbed back up the cliff side where they were detained by Antiquities Authority officials, he said. They have remained in police custody since.
The suspects were carrying excavation tools, metal detectors, and a 2,000-year-old hair comb, he said.
The Antiquities Authority accuses them of digging for Dead Sea Scrolls, texts left in caves during the 1st-century Jewish-Roman war and during the 2nd-century Bar Kochba revolt, when Jewish fighters battling the Roman army sought refuge in the desert.
The Dead Sea Scrolls are the world's oldest biblical manuscripts. Their initial discovery in 1947 was one of the 20th century's greatest archaeological finds.
"For many years now gangs of antiquities robbers have been operating along the Judean Desert cliffs," looking for Dead Sea Scrolls, said Amir Ganor, director of the Antiquities Authority's anti-looting unit, in a press release.
"It has been decades since perpetrators were caught red-handed. This is mainly due to the difficultly in detecting and catching them on the wild desert cliffs," Ganor said.