Palestinians from a Bethlehem-area town are accusing Israeli forces of illegally seizing an ancient artifact from their town in the predawn hours of Monday morning.
The incident took place in the southern occupied West Bank town of Tuqu, which is said to be the birthplace of the biblical prophet Amos, and is home to a number of Byzantine-era archaeological sites.
Video footage, purportedly taken by residents of Tuqu, shows Israeli military forces escorting a large flatbed truck out of the village in the middle of the night.
On the bed of the truck is a massive stone, alleged to be a baptismal font that dates back to the sixth century A.D., that was once part of an ancient church in the village.
The unique octagonal shape of the stone, which has been widely studied by Palestinian cultural organizations, is easily identifiable in the video.
The baptismal font is reported to be one of three rare basins of its kind. The other two were found in the Church of Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and the Church of Beit Jibrin, an ancient Palestinian village near Hebron that was forcibly depopulated in 1948.
According to Wafa news agency, the same baptismal font was stolen by “unauthorized dealers” back in 2000, before being returned by Palestinian authorities to Tuqu in 2002.
PLO Executive Committee Member Hanan Ashrawi tweeted the video of the seizure, calling it “typical.”
“Israel steals our land & resources, plunders our archeological/historical sites, appropriates our cultural heritage & seeks to eradicate all evidence of our identity & continuity in our ancestral homeland–a settler-colonial attempt at erasing evidence of the indigenous,” she said.
Local news agencies reported that just days before the seizure of the baptismal font, Israeli forces seized 700 dunams of Palestinian land around the Herodion Mountain south of Bethlehem, allegedly part of Israel’s plans to construct a museum in the area.
On social media, Palestinians speculated that the theft of the baptismal stone could be connected to the land seizure around Mount Herodion, which is alleged to be the burial place of King Herod.
Israel has been accused of stealing ancient Palestinian artifacts in the past, most recently in 2018, when a number of ancient artifacts originating in the West Bank were displayed at an Israeli art exhibit in Jerusalem.
International law prohibits an occupying power from assuming ownership of antiquities or transferring artifacts out of the territory it occupies.
Emek Shaveh, an Israeli NGO “working to defend cultural heritage rights,” has long criticized Israel for its archaeological practices in the occupied West Bank.
Of Israel’s policies regarding artifacts and archaeological sites, the group has said: “Israel continues to use its position as the administrator of archaeological sites in the West Bank as a means to deepen its control over West Bank land, to expand the settlement enterprise, and extend the policy of dispossession of Palestinians from their lands and cultural assets. Although the takeover of land through archaeology is not the main method of achieving Israeli control over land, it is significant because of its symbolic aspects and impact on public awareness.”