Photo Credit: Shomrim Al Hanetzach

The Palestinian Authority (PA) has commandeered another archaeological site in Samaria and has converted it into a “Palestinian Heritage Site,” as a monitoring organization warns of an irreversible loss of Israeli history and culture.

The archaeological site of Sheikh Sha’ala, located in Area A under full PA control in Samaria, has recently been redecorated with a huge mast flying a PLO flag.

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Farmers prepared agricultural plots and a summer house was built, without regard to the archaeological findings that were irreversibly damaged.

The meaning of the name “Sheikh Sha’ala” in Arabic is owner or lord of the flame, implying that this is the biblical site at which fire came down and burned the messengers of Ahaziah king of Israel who came to Elijah the prophet, as described in the Book of Kings II.

The site overlooks all of ancient Samaria, the capital of the kings of Israel during the First Temple period.

The site has an ancient structure with a Greek inscription from the 4th century CE, the Byzantine period in the Land of Israel, which tells of the magnificent building erected on the site in memory of Elijah the Prophet. “Help Stephen … who built this wonderful house for Elijah the prophet,” the dedication reads.

The floor of the building dates to the 6th century CE. The building incorporates Crusader and Muslim motifs. The building was used in the Byzantine period through the Crusader period and was then abandoned.

Shomrim Al Hanetzach (Preserving Eternity), a watchdog group dedicated to protecting Israel’s archaeological treasures, discovered recently the significant damage to the ancient remains at the site. In addition to the summer house and agricultural plots that were prepared with heavy machines, vandals scrawled graffiti on the Byzantine-era dedication plaque affixed at the site by the builder of the house in honor of Elijah.

The PA has announced it has further plans for development at the site.

The PA damaging of heritage sites in Judea and Samaria is not new. In recent years, huge PLO flags have been hoisted at several heritage sites, severely damaging the archaeological remains.

In November 2020, the PA inaugurated a “Palestinian” tourist complex in the town of Sebastia in Samaria, the historic capital of the biblical Kingdom of Israel. A flagpole with the PLO flag was affixed to the ancient stones, under the auspices of UNESCO and the Belgian government, without any archaeological and scientific supervision.

More recently, unknown individuals from the PA have again caused damage to the Biblical-era site of Yehoshua ben Nun’s Altar on Mount Ebal.

In January, Shomrim Al Hanetzach discovered that Arabs operating an illegal factory in Beit Fajar in Gush Etzion took about two kilometers from a Second Temple period aqueduct and ground it into gravel for construction.

The IDF’s Civil Administration claims it has no powers in the area, and that the PA is responsible for guarding the sites. However, Shomrim Al Hanetzach and the Shiloh Forum have formulated a legal position stating that in the absence of cooperation from the PA, the ultimate responsibility for these important sites rests with Israel.

Adi Shragai, the spokesperson for Shomrim Al Hanetzach, stated Tuesday that “dealing with the erasing heritage sites is not an issue for a local civic authority, like collecting property taxes and treating water and sewage. It is a violation of the global heritage of all mankind.”

This latest damage caused to a heritage site is “part of the nationalist rampage of flag-flying by the Palestinian Authority at heritage sites. It started in the Hasmonean Aroma fortress in Samaria that is being destroyed these days, through ancient Sebastia, and now another important site has been destroyed. Meanwhile, the Israeli side remains silent and does not prevent the destruction of the heritage.”

Turning to the government, she demands: “when you will be asked how a history of 3,000 years was destroyed in 30 years, what will you answer? This is your shift and the finger is pointed at you. You could act – and you did not. Shame.”

Antiquities in Judea and Samaria face a constant danger of destruction. Grave robbers and antiquities thieves from the PA carry out illegal digs and excavations. The phenomenon of antiquity destruction is pervasive and affects all sites that are not under preservation, and a survey of the sites in Judea and Samaria shows that a staggering 95% of the archaeological sites have been robbed, vandalized, or disturbed.

Findings presented to the Knesset in January show that 90% of the sites that are destroyed are being destroyed by the PA for development purposes, and 10% are destroyed for robbery purposes.

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Aryeh Savir is director of the International division of Tazpit News Agency.