Scandal in SebastiaThis peaceful biblical scene of rolling hills with olive groves and flocks of sheep conceals a scandal about which the international community has remained largely silent.
Hidden behind the cluster of trees in the central background stands the abandoned Sebastia railroad station, a branch line of the Hijaz Railway to nearby Nablus.A takeover was staged here in July 1976
by the Zionist group Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) on the pretext of its proximity to the ruins of Samaria, ancient capital city of the Kingdom of Israel built by King Omri. The demonstrators demanded that the area be settled by Jews and the newly elected Prime Minister Menachem Begin helped ensure that the settlement of Shavei Shomron (Returnees of Samaria) was founded the following year. Today its population tops 1000, a mix of Zionists and Modern Orthodox Jews. In 2013 it began pumping its sewage into nearby Palestinian fields, killing crops.The above photo of the Israeli settlement was taken in spring 2016 from the Palestinian Arab town of Sebastia, named after the archaeological site alongside it, the same site the Israelis prefer to call Samaria. The Palestinian and Israeli tourist brochures reflect this split identity: the Israeli ones end with descriptions of the Greek, Roman and early Byzantine settlements, omitting any mention of the thriving Arab Christian and Muslim communities that lived here till the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Their presence, let alone the continued presence of the Palestinians living in the town of Sebastia, designated Area A, does not suit the Israeli narrative. Using their well-tested technique of ‘incrementalism’, Israelis have, step by tiny step, been laying the groundwork for a takeover of the archaeological site of Sebastia through turning it into one of their many national parks, the same technique they have used all over the Golan Heights to claim such areas as ancient Banias, City of Pan. Now it is a race against time to get the site adopted by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site to protect it from further Israeli designs. When driving to Sebastia in the West Bank this spring with my family hoping to walk sections of Abraham’s Path, a cultural trail aimed at uniting communities through sustainable tourism and socio-economic development, I did not expect to be chased by an Israeli jeep full of armed soldiers and told it was too dangerous. Thankfully, I ignored them. We stayed for three days in Sebastia’s Palestinian guesthouse, enjoying the warmth of Palestinian hospitality. Before 1967 Sebastia was the number one tourist site in the region. Now hardly anyone comes except coachloads of Israelis who are bussed straight to the site and taken round under military escort, forbidden from entering the historic Palestinian town with its Crusader church of John the Baptist in the main square. As a result no tourist revenue reaches the Palestinian residents. We walked alone without a guide in the hills, following trails from Walking Palestine by Stefan Szepesi. We never locked our car or our rooms. I urge everyone to visit Sebastia and make up their own mind about where the danger lies. Related articles:
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/db0971c2-2723-11e6-8b18-91555f2f4fde.html#axzz4AQ7z9xnN (‘Good News’ for Israel)
http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/annexing-archaeology-unesco-israel-160519051718915.html (Annexing archaeology: Will UNESCO take on Israel?)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36322756 (New Palestinian Museum opens without exhibits)
http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/03/ancient-sebastia-threatened-israeli-settlement.html (Ancient Palestinian Village Threatened by Israeli Settlement)
https://electronicintifada.net/content/sebastias-living-community-sidelined-ancient-ruins/9776 (Sebastia’s living community sidelined for ancient ruins)
http://www.wrmea.org/2016-january-february/israels-master-plan-for-judaization-of-palestine-continues-apace.html (Israel’s ‘Master Plan’ for Judaization of Palestine Continues Apace)
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36441313 (Israel-Palestinian two-state solution ‘in serious danger’)
Really, I am lost for words …
Let’s hope that UNESCO will recognise this wonderful archealogical site and save it for the Palestinians.
Yes, I was shocked on this return visit to Sebastia (I had visited in 1986 with my mother when there was no Israeli military presence) to see the deterioration in relations and the extent of the Israeli aggression towards us as non-Israeli visitors. The armed soldiers forced us to turn the car around and escorted us at least 2km away from Sebastia. “You can go in any direction, but not this one,” they told us. “Maybe tomorrow you can come.” Fortunately I had the mobile number of the guesthouse, called it to explain what had happened and they came down from Sebastia to find us and lead us up the back roads to the town. They were immensely grateful we had persisted and were able to come and see for ourselves that there was no danger. It is very clear the Israelis want to punish the Palestinians living in Sebastia and make sure no tourist income reaches them. Yesterday’s Paris talks show how desperately the situation needs to be resolved: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36441313