Israeli settlers threaten Palestinian archaeology in historic city of Sebastia

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Jan 24, 2021

The historic city of Sebastia is situated on a 440-meter excessive (one-quarter of a mile) hilltop north of Nablus metropolis and is named the Palestinian capital of the Romans. The metropolis, well-known for its dozens of Roman archaeological items and websites, constantly faces assaults by Israeli settlers and the Israeli military, who’ve their eyes set on its archaeological websites.

In November 2020, Israeli authorities threatened to forcibly take away the 17-meter (56-feet) lengthy Palestinian flagpole erected near the antiquities plaza within the city of Sebastia. The plaza itself is situated in Area B of the West Bank, which is underneath Palestinian civil management and Israeli navy management. Israel claims the flagpole provokes the settlers.

Mohammad al-Azem, head of the Sebastia municipality, advised Al-Monitor, “Sebastia is an ancient town dating back 3,000 years. It extends over 5,000 dunums [1,235 acres] and is inhabited by 3,500 people. Herod the Great named the city Sebaste — meaning Augustus — in honor of Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar in 27 B.C.”

Azem added, “The Shafi Shamron settlement adjacent to the town seized 400 dunums [99 acres] of Sebastia. The Israeli army prevents Palestinians from entering 200 dunums of the town’s lands in the area around the four sides of the Shafi Shamron settlement. Israel also controls 2,500 dunums of its lands located in Area C, where work or construction are prohibited.”

Regarding the Israeli assaults in town and its archaeological websites, Azem stated, “The Israeli Settlements Council in the West Bank — headed by Yossi Dagan — storms the archaeological sites in the town every Wednesday. This is in addition to the frequent incursions by groups of settlers who carry sign boards reading, ‘Sebastia, a public park.’ Israel also closes the town in order to secure the arrival of Jewish tourists to the archaeological sites to perform religious rituals.”

On one other word, he stated that a number of archaeological websites in Area B have been restored, together with a variety of church buildings 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) contained in the Roman metropolis wall. The Belgian Development Agency, the Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, the European Union and the United Nations Development Program have rehabilitated Al-Baidar Square near the archaeological web site, as a part of a single challenge accomplished in October 2020. “The number of foreign tourists coming to Sebastia was estimated at 100,000 per year, but during 2020 no tourist entered the town due to the coronavirus pandemic,” Azem famous.

He added, “The Israeli army prevents the Sebastia municipality and the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities from entering the archaeological sites located in Area C, which is under Israeli security and administrative control. These sites are home to multiple monuments such as the Roman stadium and amphitheater, a colonnaded street with 600 columns, a temple for Augustus, a royal palace, a basilica and a Hellenistic tower. The ruins located in Area B are the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, the Roman Cemetery and Nabi Yahya Mosque.”

Under the Oslo Accord signed between the PLO and Israel in 1993, the West Bank was divided into three areas. Area A, representing 18% of the West Bank, is underneath the safety and administrative management of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Area B, representing 21% of the West Bank, is topic to Palestinian civil and Israeli safety administration. Area C, constituting 61% of the West Bank, is topic to Israel’s full safety and administrative management, that means any Palestinian challenge or measures to be made in it requires the Israeli authorities’ approval.

Jeires Qumsieh, spokesman for the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, advised Al-Monitor, “The oldest sites and monuments in the town of Sebastia date back to the Iron Age, the Stone Age and the Bronze Age. Then the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Canaanite, Greek, Byzantine and Roman civilizations left their mark over time until the Islamic period. Sebastia has made it to the tentative list of the UNESCO World Heritage sites.”

He stated, “Israel has its eyes set on the town and its archaeological sites, which witness almost daily incursions. Israel also impedes the work of the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities employees in the town. Sebastia has archaeological and historical treasures that are yet to be discovered.”

Qumsieh defined that the area wants everlasting improvement and safety. “The necessary infrastructure must be built to accommodate more foreign tourists,” he added, calling on worldwide establishments involved with defending heritage and antiquities to strain Israel to permit the ministry’s employees into archaeological websites in Area C to guard them from thieves and unlawful excavations.

Ghassan Douglas, the official in command of the settlement file within the northern West Bank affiliated with the PA, stated the Nablus governorate is surrounded by 12 Israeli settlements and greater than 37 Israeli navy websites and outposts. “The governorate witnesses constant attacks by settlers, who cut olive trees planted on the citizens’ lands and release wild pigs and sewage wastewater into these lands. These Israeli measures aim to stifle the Palestinian population and deny them access to their lands.”

He advised Al-Monitor, “Sebastia is subject to ongoing Israeli restrictions, through continuous incursions by settler groups to its archaeological sites, specifically in Area C. This area includes most of the archaeological sites in Sebastia, which reveals Israel’s intention to seize the archaeological sites and historical monuments.”

Douglas concluded, “Israel is trying to falsify facts and history by labelling Sebastia as the capital of northern Samaria. This is an example of the settlement measures aimed at annexing the archaeological area to the so-called Israel Nature and Parks Authority.”