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In Sebastia, Palestinians fear ‘Judaisation’ amid rising Israeli violence

In World
June 08, 2024

The body of John the Baptist is believed to be buried beneath Sebastia’s picturesque Ottoman-era village centre. In the Bible, he is said to have baptised Jesus in the Jordan River east of Sebastia.

He was reputedly beheaded by Roman-appointed King Herod I, who ruled Palestine from 37 BC, and his head was buried in Damascus.

The Israeli government, however, focuses on Sebastia being the reported site of the capital of the Kingdom of Israel during the First Temple Period (circa 1,200 to 586 BC).

The importance Israel gives to the site can be seen in the boundary between Sebastia’s archaeological park and the village of Sebastia itself.

The second Oslo Accord in 1995 divided the Palestinian West Bank into three areas with roughly two-thirds in Area C under full Israeli administration and control, including Sebastia’s archaeological park.

The rest of Sebastia is in Area B under Palestinian control although Israel still controls security.

Mayor Azem said the conservation of historical sites in Sebastia has always caused conflict between Palestinians and their occupiers who want to “Judaise the site”.

Last year, the Israeli government announced about 30 million shekels (more than $8m) for the restoration of the archaeological park. Recently, senior Israeli government ministers, including Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman and far-right Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu, have visited the site.

Azem fears once the war on Gaza is over, the Israeli government will revive the scheme.

“When Sebastia is mentioned, Israel’s extremist government is convinced, or the politicians are trying to convince themselves, that the history of the site belongs to the Jewish people.

“And that’s why they have prepared a budget … under the pretext of restoring the archaeological area and protecting it, but really they want Sebastia transformed into a Jewish-only site.”

Al Jazeera made inquiries with Israeli authorities about the claims Azem and others in this article made but received no response by the time of publication.

Palestinian efforts to work on the site have often been delayed, Azem said, with the municipality unable to excavate, work on the ruins or even clean the site without aggression and intimidation from the military.

“All of these things lead to a … fear of visiting as a result of the pressure exerted by the occupation through the army and settlers,” Azem said.

“They’re doing [this] to scare us, trying to kick us out of our homes and lands to empty it for the settlers.”

Sebastia’s archaeological park has been under the control of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority since 1978. The Yesha Council, which oversees all Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, has its headquarters at Shavei Shomron. Azem says this only emphasises Israel’s intent to control the village and its historical sites.

Tour guide, archaeologist and villager Suhaib Huwwari said settlers are guilty of “crimes against history” and the village is unable to stop artefacts from being looted. Some settlers, he said, have artefacts from the archaeological park on display in their homes.

“We spoke to UNESCO and gave them information about the Israeli project and called for protection, but ultimately, Israel doesn’t care about international criticism,” Azem said.

Al Jazeera contacted UNESCO about these claims to ask whether progress has been made on registering Sebastia as a World Heritage Site and whether UNESCO condemns violence in the village.

A UNESCO spokesperson did not comment on the behaviour of the settlers and the Israeli military in Sebastia and said the body has not received an application from Palestine for full World Heritage Site status.

In Sebastia itself, Azem says, life has changed after the two “catastrophes” – first, the killing of Fawzi and, second, Israel’s war on Gaza, which has now killed more than 36,000 Palestinians.

“Of course [Fawzi’s killing] left a big impact,” he said. “People are scared – parents are scared.… When soldiers invade Sebastia, parents try to get their kids back to their houses.”

“[And] since October 7, the army kills without any accountability. You see the massacres in Gaza every day, and no one cares. [It’s the] same here in Sebastia. When they come to the village to kill and shoot, … there is no accountability.

“But we will not give up on our home nor Palestine’s history.”

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