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Palestinian historical city of Sebastia besieged by settlements

Palestinian officials have been attempting to add the West Bank’s historical city of Sebastia on UNESCO’s World Heritage List to protect it from alleged Israeli violations.
A general view of the ancient Roman ruins in the northern Palestinian West Bank village of Sebastia, 12 kms northwest of Nablus, on May 5, 2011. Sebastia is home to a number of important archaeological sites from six successive cultures dating back 10,000 years: Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine. AFP PHOTO/JAAFAR ASHTIYEH (Photo credit should read JAAFAR ASHTIYEH/AFP/Getty Images)

At the intersection between Nablus and Jenin in the West Bank, specifically between the fields of corn and cypress and almond trees, different civilizations intermingle in a town that took on importance in 876 B.C. In Sebastia, Canaanites settled, and statues like Rhodes Andreas line the tunnels.

The Roman, Greek, Farsi, Assyrian and Ottoman empires left their mark on the cathedral in the city center through columns, palaces, towers and antiquities. The cathedral was built during the Byzantine days in the 12th century B.C., and French engineers rebuilt it to breathe life into it. It still stands to this day.

Sebastia, which is located on a hilltop that is 440 meters high (one-quarter of a mile), north of Nablus city, is known as the Palestinian capital of Romans, as it is famous for Greek and Roman antiquities dating back to the days of the Roman era.

Although Sebastia is a melting pot for civilizations and enjoys historical value dating back 3,000 years, it is besieged by settlements and threatened with disappearance due to Israeli violations such as attempts to move the antiquities to Israeli museums.

Traveling through narrow alleyways in the old town of Nablus, Al-Monitor visited Sebastia. Upon reaching it, features of historical civilizations appeared. The Roman Theater was the first place we visited, followed by the Hellenistic Tower, which dates back to the Greek era. The influence of ancient civilizations was obvious with every additional step we took in town — from King Omri’s palace to King Herod’s statue.

The story of civilizations in Sebastia began in 876 B.C. when King Omri built the city and reinforced it with fences. He considered it his capital and called it Sumaria. Many other civilizations followed.

Dergham al-Fares, director of the Archaeological Sites Department at the Palestinian Authority, told Al-Monitor, “Many civilizations followed King Omri’s era. The first was the Canaanite, then the Iron Age, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine. Then came the Islamic era in addition to the short Crusader rule.”

Among the most important archaeological sites in Sebastia, according to Fares, was King Omri’s palace, which dates back to 3,000 years, and the Hellenistic Tower, south of the Roman Theater, which is one of the most significant ruins of the Roman era, along with two towers and palaces and the street of columns stretching along 800 meters (half a mile) with 600 archaeological columns on each side.

Sebastia, the gateway of historical civilizations, is facing a future of invaders different from those in previous eras. These invaders are committing serious violations to eliminate the city’s history and impose the Jewish story on it. One of the most dangerous violations is the Israeli decision to ban the entry of foreign tourists to the land of Palestinian antiquities. To tighten the noose on Sebastia, Israel established the Shavei Shomron settlement after confiscating and controlling most of the city’s lands.

Sebastia mayor Nael al-Shaer told Al-Monitor, “Israel’s violations against Sebastia affected all archaeological sites and entailed the theft of antiquities from the Ottoman Mosque and their transfer to Israeli museums, as well as the attempt to move some pieces from the Royal Roman Cemetery in the town center. But after failing to lift the large stone graves, they left everything, and the town kept the wooden cranes to stand witness to the Israeli destruction.”

Shaer revealed the danger of the new Judaization project in Sebastia, which aims at confiscating all of its lands through the increased attacks of settlers with security coverage from the Israeli army.

Shaer added that settlers have also been destroying properties, and they smashed three places recently, including a restaurant, parks, an antiquity shop and excavation operations in archeological sites in the country like al-Tall, which has a surface area of 115 dunams (28 acres).

According to Shaer, Israel wants to isolate the archaeological site in Sebastia, whose surface area exceeds half of the total area of the town, and the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority wants to impose entrance fees.

The suffering of Sebastia citizens is not limited to settlers’ abuses and the theft of their lands. The sewage water from Shavei Shomron settlement is leaking into the land, ruining trees and crops and producing health hazards that are jeopardizing people’s lives.

Maysra al-Hatoum, owner of an agricultural land close to the settlement, had to stop planting crops because of the hazard of sewage water and pigs and stray dogs grazing on them.

Official Palestinian institutions tried to include Sebastia and its archaeological monuments on UNESCO’s World Heritage List to protect them from the risk of Judaization and seizure and to encourage tourists to visit the sites.

Ihab Hajj Daoud, the director general of Archaeological Sites Restoration and Management at the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor that his ministry is preparing projects to protect the antiquities of Sebastia, including an integrated scheme to preserve the archaeological and historical site in the town, as well as the cultural landscape.

In a related context, he added, “The Palestinian diplomatic attempts to add Sebastia on the World Heritage List are hindered by some impediments, such as Israel’s lack of recognition of this list, as well as its control over the archaeological sites in Sebastia, located in Area C under the Oslo Accord.”

He continued, “The Palestinian government has no security authority over Area C, where the archaeological sites are located. The government lacks the needed capacities to develop these sites to promote tourism.”

Al-Hajj Daoud said, “We have prepared a list of 20 archaeological sites in the Palestinian territories, including the town of Sebastia. We want these sites to be submitted to UNESCO and registered on the World Heritage List.”

He explained that the objective behind adding Sebastia on the World Heritage List is to protect the site from the Judaization practices and settlers’ aggressions and to fend off Israel’s attempts to blur the identity of the site and its archaeological monuments that the Palestinians have been preserving over the last thousand years.

Daoud does not expect Sebastia to be included on UNESCO’s list anytime soon, as Israel will use its veto right to vote against it and resort to the Oslo Accord that put the Palestinian stolen lands under Israel’s control.

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