“A national park that could easily match up to Caesarea or to Masada, and that does not fall short of either of the two in terms of its historical importance or its beauty.” That’s how the Samaria National Park (Sebastia) and archaeological site, located northwest of Nablus, were described in an article published last week on the Israeli news site Ynet. However, unlike Masada [National Park, in southern Israel] and Caesarea [National Park, on the Israeli coast], the Samaria National Park stands neglected, in ruins. Hardly any visitors go to see the site, and apart from a few peddlers, two empty restaurants and a small souvenir shop, the place is virtually abandoned. The economic potential of the site is not being realized, and with time, the situation there is going from bad to worse.
Accessed through a Palestinian village and in coordination with the IDF
It is almost impossible to reach the site, which covers 700 dunams [nearly 175 acres] and contains relics from the ancient Kingdom of Israel (9th to 8th centuries BC), as well as from the Greek era and a Roman amphitheater and arena. The best part of the site is located in Area C, which [according to the Oslo II Accord] is under Israeli control. However, the road leading to the site from the north of the settlement of Shavei Shomron is wrecked, so the site can only be accessed through the Palestinian village of Sebastia, which is under Palestinian Authority control (Area B). Thus, those wishing to visit the site have to coordinate it first with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and many are wary of passing through the village. What’s more, no clear paths are marked at the site itself, and there are no signs for guidance on the grounds. The site is strewn with pits and fences and is, in fact, in total shambles.
“We are at a loss. Israel would not let us go in there,” says archaeologist Adel Yahya from the Palestinian Antiquities Authority.
The Israel Nature and Parks Authority, which is in charge of Samaria National Park, had in the past operated a small office in Sebastia. It has, however, been closed. Asked to comment on the issue, the coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Unit explained that “the preservation of the site is a known issue, which is on the agenda of the Civil Administration [in Judea and Samaria], and financial resources have been allocated to that end, subject to constraints and in coordination with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.”
Be that as it may, the only economic business flourishing in Sebastia is the robbery of archaeological finds. One of the local peddlers said that antiquities robbers were openly and brazenly arriving in the site in their trucks and loading them with antique columns and capitals.
Economic loss to all parties concerned
The neglect of the Sebastia site has an economic effect, as well. Heritage sites serve as a source of employment for tourist guides, drivers and the staff working at the site. But their [historical] importance and beauty are translated into much vaster sums of money. Just to illustrate the point, according to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, in 2012 alone, 724,000 people visited Masada, streaming 33.4 million shekels [close to $9.5 million] into the state's coffers. The number of tourists who visited Caesarea that year was 670,000, yielding revenues of 8.1 million shekels [nearly $2.3 million]. It should be noted that there are a number of well-tended national parks in the territories, among them Herodium (Herodion) National Park [located east of Bethlehem] and the Qumran archaeological site [located near the Dead Sea]. This only goes to show that it is not beyond reach. Unfortunately, Samaria National Park is a quite different story.