The IAA lead excavation in Area C in possible violation of International Law

In March, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) and the Staff Officer for Archaeology (SOA) in the Israeli Civil Administration (ICA) led a public excavation of the Murba’at Caves at the Darga reservation in the northern Judean Desert in the West Bank. The excavation was supported by the Ministry of Heritage. Although cooperation on archaeological activities between the IAA and SOA in the area have been ongoing for several years, this is the first time the IAA has been presented as the lead partner in the project rather than the Civil Administration’s SOA.


The Murba’at caves are a set of three karstic caves with square shaped opening (hence the names “Murba’at” derived from “square” in Arabic  on the cliffs above the Darga riverbed in the northern Judean Desert). It was originally excavated in the 1950s by British archaeologist and director of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities, Gerald Lankester Harding, and Roland Gurein de Vaux, a French Dominican Priest from the Ecole Biblique. One-hundred and eighty 2000 year-old scrolls and letters were found. They included mention of Simeon Bar Coseba (or Bar Kokhva, the leader of the second Jewish rebellion against the Romans).

Since 1967, Israel has conducted several “emergency” archaeological surveys in the Judean desert caves, mainly in search for more scrolls. Over the past seven years the IAA and the SOA have conducted an “emergency” survey of the Judean Desert cliffs designed to “save the Judean Desert treasures from the danger of antiquity theft.” The survey documented 800 caves, 24 of which have been excavated yielding finds from various periods including scrolls, Roman-era swords, an ancient basket, troves of gold and silver coins, weapons, cloths and more.

The IAA derives its authority from Israeli law. Its jurisdiction and legitimacy are confined to Israel’s sovereign borders. Regulation and management of antiquity sites in the oPt, on the other hand, are officially under the auspices of the Staff Officer for Archaeology (SOA), a distinct body working within the Civil Administration. The two bodies found a loophole by which the SOA can subcontract the IAA and thus utilize IAA expertise in the oPt. It should be noted that the SOA unit is obligated under local and international law to safeguard all antiquities in the occupied area regardless of their historic period or affiliated culture and is prohibited from removing antiquities out of occupied territory. In addition, archaeological excavations in occupied territory are allowed only when they directly benefit the local population.

The publicity relating to the excavation by the head of the IAA and photographs from the area suggest that the excavation at the Murba’at cave is in fact led by the Israeli Antiquities Authority. Such an activity might qualify as a violation of international law and contrary to Israeli law which prohibits the authority from taking the lead on activities in the occupied territories. The fact that the excavation is taking place as part of an “operation” aimed at fighting antiquity theft is suspect considering the fact that the State of Israel is the only country in the region where the trade in antiquities is legal, thus making antiquity theft a lucrative endeavour.

Emek Shaveh’s response

The excavation at Murba’at caves exemplifies the attempt to exploit claims of heritage protection to advance annexation. In addition, the excavation is an unfortunate reminder that the State of Israel does not wish to reexamine its policies regarding the antiquities trade and the fact that this permissive policy has meant that the country has become a hub for antiquities theft, trade and laundering.

In February, Emek Shaveh wrote to the IAA demanding it cancel the excavation.  We did not receive a reply, and the excavation took place in March.

Invitation on IAA’s facebook page to come and “make history: find the next discovery in the Judean Desert”. The excavation took place between 11/3/24-21/3/24