The Political struggle over the future of Tel Sebastia
Tel Sebastia near Nablus is adjacent to the Palestinian village of Sebastia, and has been a focus of interest for settlers and the Civil Administration for the past two years. For example, we have witnessed a sharp increase in the number of Jewish visitors there. In addition, Ariel University plans to conduct archaeological excavations on the site. Aside from these activities, as part of transforming the Tel into a national park with an entrance fee, the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority is heavily investing in the preservation of the site. The struggle for Sebastia is central to strengthening the Israeli presence in the West Bank and to the realization of the aim to return to the Homesh settlement, evacuated by Israel in 2005.
The archaeological site of Sebastia is located northwest of the city of Nablus, on the way to Jenin, in the village of Sebastia. While the archaeological mound is in Area C, villagers and the visitors’ parking lot are located in Area B. The site serves as a major tourist attraction and its lands belong to Palestinians residents of the village. In 1970 the site was declared as a national park named ‘Shomron’ (Samaria) by the Nature and Parks Authority (NPA). In the last decade there has been almost no activity or presence of Israeli bodies. However, the last two years, especially in recent months, we have witnessed an increase in the number of groups of settlers coming to visit the site almost on a weekly basis (and sometimes more than once a week). This requires the coordination and support of the military.
The archaeological site: the archaeological site of Sebastia is identified with the city of Samaria, which was the capital of the Kingdom of Israel in 9-8 BCE. Excavations at the site exposed an impressive building identified as a palace of the kings of Israel (Omri and Ahab). Also unearthed were unique remains of the city from the Hellenistic period (1st-2nd century BCE). A significant portion of the remains dates to the first century BCE when Herod rebuilt the city. His building projects included a temple, theater, a stadium, and more. The city continued to exist even in the Late Roman and Byzantine periods, when it apparently reached its peak size. The city continued during the Arab and Crusader periods, of which interesting finds were discovered in the village of today. In Sebastia, even in areas that were not excavated, remains are well preserved and parts of ancient buildings can be easily identified. The mound at the top of the site (460 m above the ground) affords a spectacular view overlooking the mountains, Palestinian villages, and cultivated patches.
The political issue: The settlers are working to strengthen their control over the site. They present it as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Israel and emphasize its link to the people of Israel today. Another reason for the settlers’ motivation is Sebastia’s strategic location, overlooking the mountains west of Nablus and near the settlement of Homesh, evacuated in 2005. The tel is adjacent to a Palestinian population; the only nearby Jewish settlement is Shavei Shomron. Other nearby settlements are Yitzhar and Har Bracha, and the outpost Gva’ot Olam. Using the archaeological site allows settlers to create facts on the ground by taking over land, creating a tourist base to enhance the presence of Israeli visitors, and manipulating the archaeological narrative to present Sebastia as place of immense importance to the Jewish heritage in Israel. The hegemonic narrative aims to strengthen the claim over Sebastia as a fatherland that cannot be given up in any political agreement.
Sebastia and Ariel University: The Department of Archaeology and Land of Israel Studies at Ariel University plays a central role in the effort of the Israeli Right to make political use of archaeology in the West Bank. The University is involved in excavations at Tel Rumeida, Hebron, and last year began to organize future excavations at Sebastia. Ariel University (the only Israeli university located outside the Green Line) has become the primary academic body leading most of the archaeological excavations in the occupied territories. The excavation date in Sebastia has not been published, but lecturers from the department have officially declared their intentions.
The NPA (Nature and Parks Authority): In 1970, the Nature and Parks Authority declared Sebastia as a national park of about 214 acres and named as “Tel Shomron” (Samaria). In the last two years, by the NPA’s initiative, the Israel Antiquities Authority began conservation of the wall and towers from the Hellenistic-Roman period. In addition, the Roman theatre was cleaned and repaired. Civil Administration officials told residents of Sebastia that there are plans to fence the site and to charge an entrance fee. They said the guides from the village will be able to continue working on the site and that residents will not have to pay. Currently works on the site are being done slowly and irregularly, and it is unclear when the NPA plans to fence it off and change the conditions of entry.
In summary, the attempt to control of Sebastia is part of a strategic struggle by settlers to control the West Bank as a whole. In recent years, Israeli authorities are making visible attempts to increase their presence on the site. This attempt is reflected, inter alia, by the Nature and Parks Authority’s intention to fence the site, Ariel University’s plan to conduct excavations there, and the emphasis on findings attributed to the Kingdom of Israel. We argue that the transformation of Sebastia into a tourism hub is intended to strengthen the connection of the Jewish people to this land, and to undermine the Palestinian heritage and narrative alongside the physical takeover of lands.
Back to top