Welcome to FMEP’s Weekly Settlement Report, covering everything you need to know about Israeli settlement activity this week.
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May 12, 2023
On May 7, 2023, the Israeli government approved nearly $9 million (NIS 32 million) for a project to develop and “renovate” the archaeological site of Sebastia, located near the Palestinian village of Sebastia, north of Nablus in the heart of the West Bank. The project includes plans to pave a new access road for Israelis to reach the site, which they currently have to access by traveling through the Palestinian village of Sebastia, which will increase and entrench Israeli control not only over the site itself but the surrounding area – effectively weaponizing archaeology as a tool for dispossession.
Emek Shaveh calls this new project “a considerable investment,” saying it “takes Israel’s unilateral actions at heritage sites in the West Bank to a new level.” The investment is in line with the current government’s coalition agreements which include a commitment to invest $40 million into a “National Emergency Plan” under which Israel must take control of heritage sites across the totality of the West Bank, without regard to the Oslo-defined Areas A, B, and C. The Sebastia archaeological site straddles the line designating Areas B and C, with most of the site is in Area C. The Palestinian village of Sebastia – which settlers travel through to reach the site – is in Area B entirely.
Settlers have been openly agitating for Israel to assert control over the archaeological site in Sebastia for years, and the settler Samaria Regional Council organizes regular tours to the site. To secure the settlers’ visits, the IDF shuts down the town of Sebastia, closing Palestinian streets and businesses. As in other cases across the West Bank, settlers allege that Palestinians are damaging the Sebastia site and that the Israeli government needs to intervene. In 2021 amidst intensifying settler efforts related to the site, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry called on UNESCO to “protect all Palestinian archaeological and religious sites from Israeli violations, attacks and falsifications.” The archaeological site of Sebastia is on the tentative list of World Heritage sites in Palestine.
As a reminder: in January 2023 the Israeli government took a decision to transfer the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) from the Ministry of Culture to the Ministry of Heritage, which is now headed by MK Amihai Eliyahu (Jewish Power). The IAA exercises authority over heritage and archaeological sites in Israel, including East Jerusalem, but has increasingly expanded its authorities into Area C of the West Bank, at the expense of the Staff Officer for Archaeology within the Civil Administration, who has historically been in charge. The government also tasked Eliyahu with preparing an emergency plan to “safeguard” antiquity sites in the West Bank specifically. Settlers have spent years alleging that Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority neglect and damage heritage sites, allegations which, turns out, have created a basis for the government to take control over those sites. The government allocated NIS 150 million to the effort.
Emek Shaveh further explains the history and politicization of this archaeological 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.”
Emek Shaveh warns that over the past several months a planning committee has approved several contracts that indicate the committee is barrelling towards issuing the long-anticipated (and long-feared) tender for the construction of the East Jerusalem Cable Car project, possibly as soon as next week.
As a reminder, the Jerusalem cable car project is an initiative backed by the powerful, state-backed Elad settler group and advanced by the Israeli Tourism Ministry. While public efforts to “sell” the cable car plan focused on its purported role in helping to grow Jerusalem’s tourism industry or in serving supposedly vital transportation needs, in reality the purpose of the project is to further entrench settler control in Silwan, via archeology and tourism sites, while simultaneously delegitimizing, dispossessing, and erasing the Palestinian presence there. The State of Israel was forced to publicly admit that the implementation of the cable car project will require the confiscation of privately owned Palestinian land in the Silwan neighborhood of East Jerusalem.
Notably, the cable car line is slated to terminate at the settler-run Kedem Center compound (Elad’s large tourism center, currently under construction at the entrance of the Silwan neighborhood, in the shadows of the Old City’s walls and Al-Aqsa Mosque).
The cable car project received final approval in May 2022, but the tender for construction has yet to be issued. Emek Shaveh speculates that the cable car tender might be issued on Jerusalem Day – which will be celebrated with ultranationalist, racist parades through the Old City next week — on May 18th and 19th. Emek Shaveh further warns that several other settler projects in East Jerusalem, including the Ben Hinnom suspension bridge and the zip line over the Peace Forest, are nearing completion and might also be part of Jerusalem Day celebrations.
Emek Shaveh and other non-governmental organizations, including Who Profits and Terrestrial Jerusalem, have repeatedly challenged (and provided evidence discrediting) the government’s contention that the cable car will serve a legitimate transportation need in Jerusalem, and have clearly enumerated the obvious political drivers behind the plan, the archeological heresies it validates, and the severe negative impacts the cable car project will have on Palestinian residents of Silwan. All objections to the plan were dismissed in May 2022.
On May 7th, the Israeli High Court dismissed a new petition submitted by the Regavim settler organization (which Bezalel Smotrich, a top official in the current government, co-founded) seeking to force the government to immediately demolish the Khan Al Ahmar bedouin community. The Court granted the government yet another delay in demolitioning the village, saying that the delay was granted due to “diplomatic and security matters of the highest level.” In requesting this most recent delay, the Israeli government reassured the Court that it fully intends to demolish Khan Al Ahmar in the future and is in “negotiations” with its residents regarding their forcible removal.
In response, Regavim called the current government a “disgrace.”
Bezalel Smotrich, who serves as both the Finance Minister and a minister in the Defense Ministry with broad, unchecked authorities over civil affairs in the West Bank, made a remarkable statement, saying the quiet part out loud:
“Khan al-Ahmar will be evicted not because its illegal. (But because)it sits in a strategic area…this is the area that will determine if God forbid there will be an Arab territorial continuum”
While the Israeli government has taken a cautious approach to demolishing Khan Al-Ahmar – largely in consideration of international pressure – the government showed no restraint in demolishing an EU-funded school near Bethlehem. The school served 60 Palestinian children.
Regavim is also behind this demolition, which was carried out by the government in defiance of a request from the EU to not do so. In a statement, the EU said that demolitions like this are:
“illegal under international law, and children’s right to education must be respected. The EU calls on Israel to halt all demolitions and evictions, which will only increase the suffering of the Palestinian population and risk inflaming tensions on the ground.”