Press Release: Tel Sebastia and Jerusalem Day
Government decision to restore Tel Sebastia is a new record in Israel’s use of ancient sites in creeping annexation efforts, and what’s on the menu for Jerusalem Day
Sunday’s (7/5/23) government decision to allocate 32 million NIS for the restoration of Tel Sebastia takes Israel’s unilateral actions at heritage sites in the West Bank to a new level. Claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians as a seminal heritage site, Tel Sebastia is also on the Tentative List of World Heritage Sites as a Palestinian world heritage site. The site near Nablus embodies multiple archaeological periods including impressive Iron Age remains from the Kingdom of Israel. The considerable investment follows a five-year campaign by settler organizations such as the Shiloh Forum (an affiliate of Kohelet) and Guardians of Eternity to apply full Israeli control over ancient sites in Area C in what would be tantamount to de facto annexation of these sites.
In Jerusalem’s Historic Basin several projects are nearing completion. Over the past few years on Jerusalem Day, the Israeli government has announced new projects for the city’s Historic Basin. In recent years, many of these ventures were initiated by the settlers of the Elad Foundation. Last year the government announced the second phase of the Shalem Plan which included investments to link multiple projects planned for, or currently run by, Elad in the City of David, the Hinnom Valley and the Armon Hanatziv Promenade. The second phase of the Shalem Plan continued its first phase, announced in 2017, which enabled the excavation of the Roman road, known as the “Pilgrims’ Road”, a highly problematic horizontal excavation project beneath the homes of the residents of Wadi Hilweh neighborhood in Silwan.
This year, at least two touristic projects are likely to feature center-stage during the Jerusalem Day celebrations in the third week of May. Both are highly damaging to Jerusalem’s historic skyline and cultural and demographic character: 1. The suspension bridge in the Hinnom Valley, currently nearing completion at a cost of 20 million NIS, and 2. The zip-line from the Armon Hanatziv promenade to the Peace Forest at the cost of 10 million NIS. Alongside these projects we also expect to hear about the cable car, possibly the issuing of a tender for its construction.
Government approves 32 million NIS for restoring Sebastia as a Jewish Heritage site.
In Sunday’s government meeting (7th of May), 32 million NIS were approved for the restoration of Sebastia, a highly important archaeological site north of Nablus. Eight government ministries are contributing to the effort including the Ministry of Environmental Affairs, Ministry of Tourism,and the Ministry of Heritage. The decision, which is subject to the approval of the 2023/24 budget, follows a five year settler led campaign to increase Israeli control over ancient sites in the West Bank claiming an orchestrated and deliberate effort by the Palestinians to destroy Jewish antiquities. So far the campaign has yielded dividends in the form of allocations of millions of shekels towards greater oversight over construction and other Palestinian activities in or near antiquity sites, the expropriation of antiquity sites for the first time in decades, and measures to expand the remit of the Israel Antiquities Authority into the West Bank in a move which we described as tantamount to de facto annexation in the realm of antiquities.
The archaeological site of Tel Sebastia is identified with Samaria (Shomron in Hebrew), the capital of the Iron Age ancient Kingdom of Israel in 9-8 BCE. The site also features substantial ruins from the Hellenistic, Roman and later periods. King Herod named the site after Augustus Caesar (Sebaste is Augustus in Greek). The ruins of a Byzantine Church associated with St. John the Baptist have drawn Christian pilgrims to the site for centuries. Unlike other sites in the West Bank, such as Susya which is wholly in Area C, Sebastia straddles the border with Area B and the Palestinian village of Sebastia. To access the site in Area C it is necessary to traverse Area B. For decades the residents of the Palestinian village have benefited from the site, taking tours and selling food and drink to tourists.
Several years ago the Palestinian Authority initiated development work at the park and set up an interpretation center. In 2020 the PA placed a Palestinian flag at the entrance. In their response the Shomron Regional Council blamed the Palestinians for destroying a site central to Jewish history and UNESCO for supporting the Palestinians. More recently settlers accused the Palestinians of destroying Jewish antiquities in the process of paving a road at the site. Tel Sebastia is on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites tentative list as a Palestinian Word Heritage site.
The battle over Sebastia is also played out in the narratives each side presents to the public. The informational material distributed by the PA does not include an explicit reference to the Kingdom of Israel or to the Hasmonean connection. On the other hand, in recent years the settlers have been rehabilitating the figure of Omri, a King of the Kingdom of Israel, in an effort to imbue Sebastia with greater nationalist significance. Sebastia also holds a special place in recent history for the settlers because it is the place where the leaders of Gush Emunim, the group that first fought for the establishment of settlements in the West Bank in the 1970s, celebrated the government’s agreement to establish the first settlement in the area in 1975.
In tandem with the growing campaign of recent years to apply full Israeli control over Sebastia, larger numbers of Israelis visit the site every week in buses organized by the Samaria Regional Council and accompanied by soldiers.
Sebastia, is a declared national park. National parks and nature reserves in Area C of the West Bank are managed by the Civil Administration and are referred to as “parks”. Their total area spans approximately 500,000 dunams and constitutes roughly 14.5% of Area C. Palestinians’ rights are violated in these territories through various means. In the Ein Prat Nature Reserve, for example, landowners cannot cultivate their land as their access is restricted. In Herodion National Park and Nabi Samuel, residents can neither construct nor renovate their homes.
The Hinnom Valley Suspension Bridge:
The Hinnom Valley suspension bridge will be the longest of its kind in the country and was advanced as an “extreme sport” project. The bridge, nearing completion, is damaging to the ancient city skyline and will lead directly from Mount Zion to the House in the Valley, an events facility belonging to the Elad Foundation. The bridge is budgeted at 20 million NIS: 7.5 Million NIS from the Ministry of Tourism, another 7.5 million NIS from the Ministry of Jerusalem Affairs and 5 million NIS from the Jerusalem Municipality.
Beit Schatz and the zip-line to the Peace Forest:
Beit Schatz is another visitors center belonging to the Elad Foundation. Situated on the Armon Hanatziv promenade near Jabel Mukaber it is nearing its final stages of construction. An 800 meter zip-line is scheduled to be built stretching from Beit Schatz to the Elad Foundation’s camping grounds in the Peace Forest. According to the signs placed at the site the project is scheduled to be completed this month. Recently the Jerusalem Development Authority allocated 10 million NIS to the project.
The cable car to the Old City
Last May, the petitions against the cable car, including our own, were dismissed by the High Court. Slated for construction between the First Station complex in West Jerusalem, Mount Zion and the City of David/Silwan in East Jerusalem, it is potentially the most destructive of the projects currently under development in the Historic Basin. When it was first revealed, it drew criticism from hundreds of heritage professionals in Israel and abroad.
Although the High Court decision greenlighting the cable car was given a year ago, a tender for its construction has yet to be advertised. However in the past few months, the tenders committee has approved a variety of contracts aimed at advancing such a tender, such as an architect and a ticketing consultant. We suspect that one of the projects planned as a “gift” to Jerusalem on Jerusalem Day will be the Cable Car.
Where is The Pool of Siloam?
Five months ago (December 2022), border police raided a large orchard adjacent to the Pool of Siloam which had been cultivated by the Sumrin family for generations. The land belonged to the Greek Orthodox church and originally leased to the Sumrin family. It was recently discovered that an offshore company called Donhead, affiliated with the settlers group Ateret Cohanim, had leased the land in a deal sealed nearly two decades ago that had also included the Petra and Imperial hotels. The land in question is now controlled by the Elad Foundation who evicted the Sumrin family to make way for archaeological excavations intended to complete the process of unearthing the ancient pool which had begun in 2004. On the morning of the raid in late December, the Israel Antiquities Authority and the Nature and Parks Authority issued a press release announcing the intention to reveal the ancient Pool of Siloam in its original grandeur. The press release included simulated images of the ancient pool.
Archaeological practice does not usually entail confident prophecies about finds that have yet to be unearthed. A letter sent by Professor Rafi Greenberg, Chairman of Emek Shaveh’s board and Alon Arad, Executive Director of Emek Shaveh, to Eli Escosido, Director General of the Israel Antiquities Authority said “this act has been carried out in the service of a private foundation with messianic and controversial ambitions turning archaeological excavations into a political mechanism intended to advance the ambitions of a small group who wish to take control over the past and the future of this city which is precious to us all. In so doing, the Antiquities Authority places a stain on Israel’s archaeological project as a whole.”
In response Eli Escosido replied, “Personally I think that the excavation of the Pool of Siloam will result in an important tourist attraction, which will, in turn, lead to development generating economic opportunities for the area’s residents. I believe that this is preferable to the situation where the place is a site for an illegal antiquities trade and the charging of protection money from tourists.”
The excavation itself has so far revealed nothing. Five months after the orchard was destroyed, and the fabric of life in Silwan further unraveled, there is nothing to show for the excavation.
The Kidron Valley
The Kidron Valley runs between the Old City and the slopes of the Mount of Olives and links the neighborhoods of Silwan and Wadi el-Joz. The slopes of Silwan overlooking the valley feature rock cut tombs from the Judean period topped by residential Palestinian homes. Slightly to the north it runs below the Mount of Olives Jewish Cemetery. The area of the valley near Silwan is marked by monumental tombs from the Hellenistic/Second Temple Period including the Tomb of Absalom and the Tombs of Zechariah and Bnei Hezir (a priestly family).
The Kidron valley is also of utmost religious importance for Muslims and Christians. Part of the Kidron is included in the plan to expand the national park into the Mount of Olives, to the consternation of the city’s main churches.
For several years the Elad Foundation has been cultivating the slopes overlooking the valley in the area leading to the Pool of Siloam in the City of David Site. Last year, the Jerusalem Development Authority budgeted 1 million NIS for the creation of a promenade. The plan provides for rest stations, shaded areas, and the route itself will be linked to the Elad-run Roman road (known as the “Pilgrim’s Road”). The route as a whole is referred to in the budget as “the Second Temple route” and includes plans to rehabilitate the Hellenistic era tombs and a tomb recently associated with the sixteenth century Jewish Rabbi Ovadia of Bartenura.
Recently, Elad together the Government Tourist Company, the Dead Sea Drainage Authority and the Nature and Parks Authority have set up a Bedouin-style hosting tent in the Kidron, inviting families to experience spring flower tours and other family activities.
The plans in the Kidron are an example the Judeo-centric development likely to take place between the churches of the Mount of Olives if the plan to expand the national park into the Mount of Olives materializes. Emek Shaveh’s new guide to the Kidron will soon be published in English.