Update from May 8, 2022: During its regular weekly meeting held yesterday (5.7.23), the Israeli government approved a proposal to invest up to 32 million NIS in the development of the archaeological site of Sebastiya.
The government ordered the Nature and Parks Authority to submit a development plan to the site in 60 days. The investment in the site is divided into three years, from 2023 to 2025. The development plan involves paving a road to provide Israeli access to the site and transforming it into a tourist attraction that is open to the public. The site is located partly in Area B and partly in Area C, adjacent to the Palestinian village of Sebastiya, and is surrounded by Palestinian towns and villages.
The proposal that was presented at the government meeting, was submitted by Minister of Environmental Protection, Idit Silman, Minister of Tourism, Haim Katz, and Minister of Heritage, Amihai Eliyahu, and was coordinated with ten ministers, including Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, and Defense Minister, Yoav Gallant. The basis of the proposal is an allocation of up to 32 million NIS for development at the site from 2023 to 2025, subject to the approval of the state budget at the end of this month. The budget is primarily intended for (a) paving a direct access road that does not require passing through Area B, (b) promoting excavations and preservation of buildings at the site, and (c) turning it into a paid tourist site.
According to the proposal, the site will be under the responsibility and management of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), and entry to the site will be subject to a fee. A visitor center will be built and operated by the INPA. It is important to remember that currently, the site is open to the general public free of charge, allowing many, including Palestinians, to visit the ancient ruins.
The investment earmarked to promote the archeological site turns it into a tourist settlement in the heart of a Palestinian area and within the territory of the village of Sebastiya. The economy of this Palestinian village is also based on tourism to the site. Over the years, alongside the antiquities, several restaurants and guesthouses have been built.
The involvement of the Civil Administration at the site is intended to expand the visits of settlers while simultaneously reducing the Palestinian presence. The fact that the site is part of the village of Sebastiya and is located in the heart of a Palestinian area may lead to tensions, as we have seen in other places around the Nablus area and elsewhere.
Between Homesh and Sebastiya:
The struggle over Israeli presence in the northern West Bank is a significant part of the current Israeli government’s policy. One of the first laws passed by the government was the law to repeal the Disengagement Law from the northern West Bank, which allows for a more significant presence in Homesh that was evacuated in 2005 and is at the present time an illegal outpost.
The Sebastiya archeological site is located almost halfway between the settlement of Shavei Shomron and Homesh. Turning Sebastiya into a tourist settlement under the control of the Civil Administration and the jurisdiction of the INPA will increase the presence of settlers in the area, which will inevitably lead to a more significant military presence and, thus, also an increase in friction and violence. Additionally, and in many ways, turning Sebastiya into a site that attracts the Israeli public shortens the distance to Homesh and the evacuated settlements in the northern West Bank region.
Peace Now: “The decision to turn Sebastiya into a tourist site under the management of the Civil Administration and the INPA represents a de facto establishment of a new settlement in the heart of contiguous Palestinian territory in the depths of the West Bank. The decision stems from political pressure coming from settlers and is part of the Israeli government’s policy to deepen Israeli control in the heart of occupied Palestinian territory as much as possible. It seems that the government’s intentions are to eliminate the chance of a two-state solution, and the Nablus area is one of the central focuses where these actions are taken. Since its establishment, the Israeli government has legalized outposts, repealed the Disengagement Law, and now promotes tourism settlements, all in order to undermine the chances for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”
The Sebastiya Archaeological Site was declared a national park by Israel in the late 1960s. The declared park area is approximately 714 dunams, part of which is in Area C and part in Area B. The site is identified with the Biblical city of Samaria, the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Ancient Israel (8th century BCE). Herod built Sebastiya in the first century BCE on the ruins of the city of Samaria, naming it after the Roman Emperor Augustus. Sebastiya was one of the major cities in the region and continued to be a central hub during the Byzantine period (4th-7th centuries CE).
The site is located in the Palestinian village of Sebastiya and is surrounded by Palestinian villages and populations. The nearest settlement is Shavei Shomron, where the head of the Shomron Regional Council, Yossi Dagan, resides. In recent years, settler groups have conducted a wide-ranging public campaign, claiming that Palestinians are damaging archeological remains and harming the site. In the past, they even filed a complaint with the Civil Administration about the placement of a Palestinian flag at the site and damage to various monuments. Recently, they also complained about the paving of a road that they claimed harmed archeological remains. One of the prominent voices calling for Israeli presence and management of the Sebastiya site is Yossi Dagan.
Despite the claims of the settlers, the site of Sebastiya is carefully maintained and preserved by the Palestinian Authority and the people of Sebastiya in particular. It is one of the most important and impressive sites in the West Bank, and the Palestinians collaborate with leading universities around the world in excavations and research of the site.