Israeli settlers have been increasing their visits to the ruins of the ancient Naaran and Shahwan synagogues in the Jericho area in the West Bank and also performing rituals in them, sparking Palestinian fears about Israeli intentions for the region.
Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world, dates back more than 10,000 years. Palestinians and international tourists flock to Jericho and surrounding Jericho governorate, which are home to many archaeological sites such as Hisham’s Palace, which houses the largest mosaic painting in the Middle East, and many monasteries, including Deir Hajla and Deir Wadi Qelt.
Iyad Hamdan, the director of the Department of Tourism and Archaeology in the city of Jericho, told Al-Monitor, “The Shahwan and Al-Dyouk [Naaran] synagogues are two archaeological sites located within the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities’ sites in the Jericho area and the Jordan Valley."
He added, “The archaeological sites are not a place for worship, but the settlers treat them as such and insist on performing Talmudic rituals in the synagogues. More than 50 settlers visit the two synagogues on a weekly basis.”
Mohammad Jaradat, the director of tourism and antiquities for Jericho governorate, said that although the Shahwan synagogue in the city of Jericho is in Area A of the West Bank, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority, the visits from Israeli settlers and tourists "stem from the terms of the Oslo Accords, which allowed in its additional annexes the Jews to visit the synagogue which is known [to them] as Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue." Shalom Al Yisrael means “Peace Unto Israel.”
He told Al-Monitor, “Israeli army forces accompany the settlers when visiting many archaeological sites in Jericho governorate to protect them. These include the archaeological Tal al-Sultan site.”
He said the "settlers’ visits are intended to entrench settlement, as they consider the site part of the Jewish religious heritage.” He added, “The visits to the archaeological and historical sites are a Zionist attempt to Judaize the Jericho area and the Jordan Valley to implement part of the Zionist annexation plan."
Hamdan said, "Shahwan synagogue was built at the end of the Byzantine period and the early Islamic period, while the construction of Al-Dyouk synagogue dates back to the beginning of the Byzantine period during the sixth century AD.”
Hamdan said that in 1936, “The Shahwan family discovered the mosaic floor of the synagogue during excavation works to build their home there." He said the synagogue ruins and the home that was built around them are "a rectangular building with an area of 400 square meters (4,300 square feet). The ground floor displays a 40-meter mosaic painting with inscriptions in Aramaic. Two other floors were built during the Jordanian rule of the West Bank.”
The Naaran or Al-Dyouk synagogue is in Ein el-Dyouk al-Foqa north of Jericho in what was the ancient Jewish community of Naaran.
He added, “Naaran synagogue has an area of 900 square meters and includes a 90-square-meter mosaic painting that forms the sky and the stars, and only its mosaic floor and the foundations of its walls remain. The two synagogues are part of Palestinian history that dates back to thousands of years, and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities works to preserve such sites, be they Islamic, Christian or Jewish, as they are considered historical and archaeological legacies.”
Hamdan said the two synagogues "are subject to restoration operations supervised by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, like other sites in Jericho, such as Hisham’s Palace, Tal al-Sultan and others. The Shahwan synagogue was renovated in 2015, while Al-Dyouk synagogue was restored in 2014, to preserve them as archaeological sites frequented by many visitors, not just settlers.”
He said, “The two synagogues are subject to settler incursions, like other archaeological sites in various areas of the West Bank such as Joseph’s Tomb and Sebastia village in Nablus, and Haram al-Rama in Hebron.”
Regarding the number of archaeological and historical sites in Jericho, Hamdan said, “The governorate is home to more than 94 sites dating back to several eras, such as the Stone Age, Copper Stone, Bronze Age, Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Islamic ages, up to the modern era. The number of local and foreign tourists who visited Jericho in 2019 was estimated at 1.7 million. The number dropped by more than 80% in 2020, bringing the number of tourists to nearly 250,000. This was due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.”
Jaradat said, "Israel considers the West Bank part of its state, which explains the confiscation and seizure of hundreds of agricultural dunums to build several settlements and outposts, which are mushrooming by the day.”
According to the Oslo Accords signed by the Palestinian Authority and Israel in the 1990s, the West Bank was divided into three areas: Area A, which is subject to full Palestinian control; Area B, which is administratively run by the PA and under the security control of Israel; and Area C, subject to the security and administrative control of Israel.
Jaradat said several archaeological sites are located in Area C. The Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities cannot carry out any restoration or excavation operations there, such as at the Tlul Abu al-Alayiq site and Khirbet Qumran, which is located northwest of the Dead Sea.
He said, “Part of Israel’s large settlement project aims at annexing the archaeological and historical sites to the map of Israel; 53% of the archaeological sites in the West Bank fall within Area C, which threatens to change their features and historical identity, confirm the Torah narrative and consider it a part of Zionist history.”