The vandalization of Avdat National Park Sunday has called attention to the Nature and National Parks Service’s struggle against the destruction of other heritage sites in Israel.
Hundreds of the UNESCO World Heritage Site’s priceless archeological artifacts, dating back thousands of years, were found vandalized Monday morning by park authorities.
Damages have been estimated at NIS 8 million (about $2 million).
“We catch offenders cutting down trees and vandalizing equipment, but the worst that happens is that they get slapped with a fine,” a NNPS park supervisor, who asked to remain anonymous, told Ynet.
“These people must be prosecuted and the courts must render deterring punishments. That’s the only way society will learn to respect its treasures and educate future generations accordingly.”
Faced with criticism against the poor security found at Avdat, Omri Gal of the National Parks Service explained that “meeting the (security) needs is very difficult. You must remember – some of the parks, especially those in the Negev Judea Desert and Golan Heights stretch across thousands of acres and we simply cannot cover so much ground.
“We’re talking about tens of millions of shekels in security costs. We cannot have a guard watching every single hiker in every single park.
“We deal with vandalism year-round,” he added. “The majority of the cases in northern Israel involve poaching and illegal deforestation. Other places see graffiti damage.
“The NNPS currently oversees 25% of the country. There are 65 national parks and heritage sites you must pay a fee to enter, which have guards, and 550 free-access parks and reservation, where we conduct regular patrols.”
The Park Service claims that it is impractical to fence every national park and heritage site, especially since it may damage wildlife and vegetation.
When asked about the screening process for on-site NNPS personnel – one of the suspects arrested in the Avdat case was a park gatekeeper – Gal said that the NNPS “screens for criminal record. We were disheartened to find that one of the park’s employees was involved.”
‘Vandalism damaging to tourism industry’
The scope of vandalism discovered at Avdat can prove detrimental to Israel’s tourism industry.
Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov told Ynet that that national parks, reservations and heritage sites should enjoy the protection of a special enforcement force: “We should have a tourist police, with the authority to arrest vandals. I think that the mere presence of such a force would be deterring enough to prevent acts like we saw in Avdat.”
Misezhnikov would like to see the project materialize, sooner rather than later: “Every 100,000 tourists create 4,000 new jobs and generate NIS 200 million in revenue ($53.5 million). It’s the most lucrative industry the state can have. Every self-respecting country has a tourist police.
“Every tourist that suffers because of vandalism or theft equals bad advertising for Israel. Word of mouth marketing is by far the most effective form of advertising – all we have to do is keep tourists happy.”
The minister said that his office has been working on a tourists police outline along with the Ministry of Public Security.
The Jewish National Fund also faced similar problems: “Unlike some of the national parks, JNF sites are free-access sites, with no security to speak of,” Gilad Mastai, a senior forester with the JNF told Ynet.
“We too experience vandalism, but luckily, not at a scope which obligates security on every site. Forests are monitored by JNF inspectors and they can detain hikers and press charges against them, if need be, via our legal department.”
The Avdat incident, said Mastai, “Doesn’t appear to be random.”
The Israel Antiquities Authority issued the following statement: “We regret the egregious vandalism of the Avdat National Park. The site suffered severe damage and those responsible must be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
“By law, the Antiquities Authority’s mission is to unearth and preserve archeological sites, but it has nothing to do with their administration once found and therefore cannot answer on matters regarding their security.
“Antiquities Authority restoration experts are working with the Nature and National Parks Service to minimize the damage to the site.”