The Israeli government’s allocation of NIS 30 million for the comprehensive takeover of archaeological sites in the historic town of Sebastia, located in the northern West Bank city of Nablus, has ignited a contentious debate over the preservation of cultural heritage. Recently, the Israeli occupation initiated the installation of tents in preparation for the launch of the controversial project. This development has raised concerns about the potential impact on the Canaanite monuments that date back five millennia.
Utilizing the occasion of Jewish holidays, the Israeli occupation began laying the groundwork for this settlement project, which appears to target the Palestinian rich historical and cultural legacy of Sebastia. By closing off access to the archaeological site during these holidays, there are apprehensions that the ancient monuments may be compromised. Local residents have reported the arrival of equipment and machinery at the archaeological sites in Sebastia, signaling the commencement of the project.
Mohammed Akel, a resident of Sebastia, expressed his concerns, stating, “The Israeli occupation has begun erecting sizable tents within the archaeological sites of Sebastia, while restricting access for local citizens.” He added, “We fear that the closure of these sites is a prelude to preventing both residents and visitors from accessing our invaluable archaeological heritage.” Akel highlights the ambitions of the Israeli occupation and Jewish settlers in the historic region of Sebastia, where their constant presence has been a source of tension.
Mohammed Awad, another resident of Sebastia, pointed out that the Israeli occupation had previously initiated Judaization projects within the town’s archaeological sites, with settlers enjoying robust protection from Israeli occupation forces. He noted the restrictive measures imposed on Palestinian citizens and tourists whenever Israeli settlers are present in the Sebastia area.
Mayor Mohammed Azem, echoing the concerns of many, affirmed that the Israeli occupation’s placement of tents for Jewish settlers in Sebastia’s archaeological sites is an attempt to gauge public sentiment and reactions to the project, which evidently targets the entire region. Azem revealed, “The Israeli occupation is capitalizing on the current Jewish holidays to bring the largest number of Jewish settlers to Sebastia’s archaeological sites, intending to keep them there for an extended period.”
In response to the unfolding situation, the municipal authorities have reached out to international organizations, including UNESCO, and the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah. They aimed to raise awareness of the imminent threat posed by the Israeli occupation and Jewish settlers in Sebastia. However, thus far, no substantive response or intervention has been forthcoming, leaving Palestinian civilians to grapple with the situation alone.
It is worth noting that the Israeli occupation has been engaged in a longstanding quest to uncover archaeological evidence related to Jews in Sebastia, yet these efforts have yielded no results. In 1908, the Zionist movement dispatched researchers from Harvard University to unearth Jewish archaeological artifacts in the town, but their mission ended in failure.
Mayor Azem elucidated the historical importance of Sebastia, underscoring its age dating back to 3000 BC. The town boasts a treasure trove of archaeological sites spanning various civilizations, including Roman, Canaanite, and Byzantine. Among the town’s prized archaeological sites are the shrine of Prophet Yahya, the street of columns, the basilica, the Roman amphitheater, the Hellenistic tower, the Temple of Augustus, the castle palace, and Roman tombs. Importantly, these historical gems have no direct connection to Jewish heritage.
The unfolding developments in Sebastia have ignited a debate over the preservation of cultural heritage, as the Israeli government’s allocation of substantial funds for archaeological site seizures sparks concerns over the fate of these invaluable Canaanite monuments. The international community’s response, or lack thereof, will likely play a pivotal role in determining the outcome of this contentious situation, which touches on issues of historical preservation and cultural significance.