The Palestinian village of Sebastia in the occupied West Bank temporarily removed a newly-installed flagpole on Monday morning after the Israeli army issued an order demanding its removal “for security reasons.” The military notice, signed by the Israeli army commander in the West Bank, was hung on the flagpole structure last Friday even before a Palestinian flag was flown.
“This is necessary to maintain the security of the region,” the military order reads, and gave the village seven days to dismantle the flagpole before it is “removed by those authorized by the army.”
The flagpole, which was installed on August 13, is part of a UNESCO-supervised rehabilitation project conducted in Sebastia’s public plaza, adjacent to the village’s famed archeological site. According to the municipality, the project is funded by Belgium and was approved by the Israeli military in 2018.
The plaza itself is located in Area B of the West Bank, which is under Palestinian civil control and Israeli military control; other parts of Sebastia are located in Area C, under full Israeli control.
Mohammed Azzem, the head of the Sebastia municipality, says that the army’s decision to remove the flagpole was the result of pressure by Israeli settlers in the area.
“I’m not allowed to move a stone in Area C,” Azzem said. “That is why the whole rehabilitation project is taking place only in Area B, next to the archeological site.”
The municipality assigned Quamar Mishirqi-Assad, an attorney and a founder of Haqel: Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights, to challenge the army’s order. “There are no security issues with a flagpole installed in the middle of the public plaza in Sebastia,” she told +972.
As a first step, Assad will submit an official objection to the Israeli judicial advisor to the Israeli Civil Administration — the arm of Israel’s military government that governs the occupied West Bank. She added that “an official objection may be submitted at Israeli courts if the communication with the military brings no result.”
The Sebastia municipality confirmed to +972 that the flagpole will be re-installed prior to the opening celebration of the plaza in September, which is meant to mark the end of the two-year rehabilitation project, regardless of the Israeli decision.
A day before the military order was delivered, the Israeli army was seen escorting a settler visit to Sebastia’s archeological site. This is a routine practice that turns the village’s ancient Roman ruins, as well as other West Bank parks, into Israeli-only zones, especially on Jewish holidays. The visit ended with light clashes between residents and Israeli soldiers who fired tear gas canisters towards the public plaza while leaving the village.
Until 1993 — at the beginning of the Oslo Accords — Israeli law forbade the flying of the Palestinian flag. Almost 30 years later, however, Israeli authorities continue to foment tension over the flying of Palestinian flags across the West Bank, particularly in Area C.
One resident told +972 that since 2014, residents of Sebastia have been hanging a Palestinian flag in the heart of the archeological site, which is classified as Area C. The resident said that the flag has been removed “dozens of times” by Israeli soldiers, who on one occasion even blew up the handmade wooden flagpole. On other occasions, he said, the Israeli army raided the village to detain residents who had re-hung the flag.
+972 was able to observe the new flagpole, which was removed by the time of the army’s visit on Monday morning.
The occupation of the West Bank has always been damaging to the Palestinian tourism sector. Zaid Azhari, a Sebastia-based tour guide, told +972 that the archeological site was declared an Israeli national park in 1978, making it difficult for the village to use the site for tourism purposes.
The Israeli Nature and Parks Authority Hebrew website includes a map of the whole of Palestine-Israel, including the occupied Golan Heights, titled “National Parks and Natural Reserves in Israel.” Two sites near the Nablus area are featured on the official Israeli website, one of which is Sebastia. The page introduces Sebastia, or Tel Samaria, as the old capital city of ancient Israel, and warns visitors not to go to the area “without prior coordination and permission from the Israeli Defense Forces.”
Azhari explains that international tourism companies plan their trips by coordinating with the Israeli authorities, who advise them to visit other locations in the country. “The international tourist doesn’t know about the details of the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and of course, they will rely on the information provided by the Israelis,” Azhari indicated.
+972 checked the English version website of the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority and found that Sebastia is no longer listed on the map, among other West Bank locations. According to Azhari, a physical map published in 2015 by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority did include Sebastia.