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In Sebastia, Palestinians Fear Judaisation Amid Rising Israeli Violence

Palestinian residents of Sebastia fear losing access to its archaeological site after Israel said it is allocating about 30 million shekels (more than $80m) to develop the site near Nablus in the Israeli-occupied West Bank [Raneen Sawafta | Reuters]

On March 6, Ayman Shaer found himself lying on the ground in the ancient square of Sebastia, bleeding and in unbearable pain.


“The soldiers were shooting people next to the ruins, and one of the bullets hit my leg as I ran,” the 27-year-old said.


“It entered my thigh. ... The whole bone was destroyed. I thought I was dead.


“The pain was indescribable.”


He lay near the remains of Sebastia’s Hellenistic acropolis, the “butterfly bullet” Israeli soldiers had shot him with expanding in his leg as it is designed to do.


“I saw death,” Ayman’s father, Raed Shaer, 53, said as he recalled his son’s shooting, which happened a few hundred metres (a few hundred yards) from the family home in Sebastia in the northern occupied West Bank.


“I tried to save Ayman from the soldiers, but they started hitting me with their weapons," he continued. “One put his rifle on his [Ayman's] brother Shawqi’s knee and threatened to shoot him. They said they were going to detain us while another soldier put a gun to my neck."


“They shot a lot of bullets in the air to scare us, so we would leave Ayman with them.


“But I told them they would have to kill me first.”


The Israeli soldiers, he said, then blocked an ambulance from reaching Ayman for several hours. Raed said if it was not for what he describes as his son’s strong physical condition, he would have died of blood loss.


Ayman lay immobilised on a hospital bed in the family's modest living room as his father spoke, his parents and siblings moving around him, their activity a stark contrast to his stillness.


The construction worker was recently told he may never walk again. He underwent four surgical procedures to save his life and what was left of his leg - and is waiting for further treatment in a last attempt to prevent permanent disability.


“I just want to be back as I was,” he said.


Raed told Al Jazeera violence in the village has intensified since October 7 when Israel launched its war on Gaza after Hamas-led attacks on Israel.


He said the Israeli military now enters Sebastia, home to the West Bank’s largest open archaeological site, almost every day.


A symbol of coexistence no more


Sebastia is encircled by Israeli settlements, all illegal under international law, including Shavei Shomron a few kilometres away (a little more than a mile).


Sebastia is a pilgrimage site for Christians because it is believed to be where John the Baptist, known in the Quran as the Prophet Yahya, is buried.


It is also believed to be the site of Samaria, the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Israel.


Israelis wishing to see some of that history are escorted to Sebastia’s archaeological park, which has ruins spanning the Greek, Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic periods.


For them, the site is evidence of Jewish ties to the West Bank. For Palestinians, the focus on one specific period of history is an attempt to undermine Palestinians' control of their own land.


Home to about 4,000 people, Sebastia was once a symbol of religious coexistence and is home to relics that chart 3,000 years of history dating back as far as the Iron Age.


Such is the significance of the remains that Palestinian authorities in Sebastia are hoping UNESCO will add them to its World Heritage list. They also hope the archaeological park will join 56 other locations on UNESCO’s register of significant sites considered to be “in danger”.


But any protection that recognition would have afforded the ancient site and the modern-day village has come too late for some because Sebastia is now no longer spared the violence other parts of Nablus district have endured.


‘Sebastia’s boy, God’s martyr’


In July, 19-year-old Fawzi Makhalfeh was killed by Israeli soldiers as he drove through the village with a friend.


Doctors removed more than 50 bullets from his body, his family said. He was the first Sebastia resident to be killed by Israelis in more than 20 years, and his name is emblazoned on memorials in the village centre. The Palestinian Authority described his killing as an “execution”.


“He was Sebastia’s boy, but God chose him as a martyr,” Fawzi’s tearful mother, Faten Makhalfeh, said.


“We lost him. ... I can’t describe this as a mother. My life stopped. My son was my soul. … They killed him for no reason.


“Everyone in the village was affected by what happened to my son.”


Faten said she was home and knew Fawzi was driving to his father’s factory with his friend when she heard shooting.


“There were too many bullets,” she said. “I felt a burning in my heart. It was telling me it was Fawzi. … I ran into the road screaming when I learned it was him.”


She said her son’s killing was intended to heighten fear of the occupation in the village.


“They want to terrorise us,” she said. “Even though we’re scared, our hearts are strong. We want to be left to live and work on the land that belongs to us.”


The Israeli army at the time accused Fawzi and his friend of trying to drive their car into some soldiers, but Fawzi’s family denied that narrative and said the two were ambushed.


Sebastia Mayor Mohammed Azem was one of the first on the scene after Fawzi was shot. He says the killing was to send a message to the villagers that they are no longer safe. He called the killing an act of “barbarism” that is part of a campaign of “terrorism”.


Regular arrests, destruction of property and settler violence has spiralled in the past few years and worsened since October 7, he said, adding that the recent military incursions are the bloodiest the village has seen.


He believes the increasing brutality along with frequent military intimidation is intended to force residents from the village and keep other Palestinians away.


Villagers said the military is in the main square almost every day, forcing people to hide in their homes and businesses to close, often to enable settlers to come into the village.


Nazmi Shaer, who owns a restaurant in the square near the ruins and is not related to Ayman and Raed, said he has lost 70 percent of his business since October 7 as tourists and locals now avoid the village.


“Every few days, the military come to the square, throw gas and attack the shops here, which forces us to often close and go home,” he said.


“The last time the army came, they detained my employees, customers and young men from outside and interrogated them in the restaurant.”


He accused the soldiers, who arrested several young men, of beating one of his employees, breaking his shoulder.


A holy site made profane


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.”

 

© 2024, Al Jazeera

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