Once a popular tourist attraction, the ancient city of Sabastiya, located ten kilometers from Nablus, is being economically strangled. Treachorous bypass roads make the trip difficult and can take several hours. The bus left the Siraj Center and took the Wadi Nur Road (valley of fire) and headed north along the alternate road around Jerusalem. The road was opened to Palestinians in 1991 and takes a long circuitous route around the heavily secured city of Jerusalem which is forbidden to Palestinians without permission papers. Obtaining the documents can take weeks and are frequently denied by Israeli officials.
We are jolted about on the narrow rock strewn road of sharp hairpin turns. The single lane road allows only one vehicle at a time and our driver must often pull to the side, the vehicle hugging the steep hillside slope, to allow another vehicle to pass.
Our Palestinian guide explains that before the road was made, people could go directly to jobs in Jenin, and it took a shorter time. Now, with the longer road and checkpoints, it takes as much as two hours. Adding to the difficulty is concern that permission to pass may be denied and delays or even arrests are possible. As a result, many remain jobless and poverty is increasing.
But we are headed for Sabastiya, a once time thriving city with a rich overlay of the many cultures that inhabited it since the Bronze Age. It is located northwest of Nablus in Zone C which is under Israeli control.
The route dips down into valleys and circles upward again to mountain heights. In the distance is Jerusalem and on the hilltops we see Israeli settlements surrounded by giant separation walls. Expansion is planned, a new one designated as E-1 is immanent.
The guide explains: â€œSettlements surround Jerusalem so Palestinians canâ€™t expand.â€
The area has many olive trees. We pass a large field of tree stumps and question the reason the trees were cut down.
The guide explains:
â€œNearby there is a large military complex we will soon pass. Snipers used to hide among the trees and shoot at the Israeli soldiers as they passed so all of the trees have been cut.â€
I look around, everywhere there is open desert dotted with shrubs, some gardens and occasionally Bedouin outposts of makeshift shacks and lean-to tents. We pass villages where Palestinian stone and concrete houses break an otherwise desolate landscape.
The military base comes into view. Large D-6 Caterpillar bulldozers are outside the complex which is enclosed in thick coils of wire. A fellow volunteer traveler said they are used to demolish homes and that it was one such bulldozer that killed activist Rachel Corrie. Not far from the army base is Ofra, a settlement prison for Palestinians.
We veer onto a rock strewn dirt side path road. The vintage bus rocks from side to side, laboriously groaning its way uphill. On the uphill clime to Sabastiya, we see the remains of Roman columns that lined the ancient roadway. Behind them there had once been a thriving market village. We hike a trail and our guide gives a detailed history of Sabastiya, a name that means â€œhonored gift.â€
Inhabitants trace back to 3000 BCE. In Biblical times it had been the domain of Hebrew tribes and the city had then succumbed to invasions by Babylonians and the Assyrians who brought in new populations of peoples that resulted in an ethnic mixing of bloods. Alexander the Great came and chose a leader to rule the city. Herold, an Adumian who become a Jew, expanded the Israelite kingdom by adding a temple, palace and theater. Remains of a Byzantine church, which later became a mosque, are evident. The presumed burial site of John the Baptist can be seen as a small step-down stone pit with a gate barring entrance to the tomb itself.
My mind spins as I listen to a litany of the countless centuries of invasions and imagine the mix of peoples who took turns with claims to the region. In the end, it rests on a single thought. So many trod this soil and many bloods were mingled, who can claim sole right to this Holy Land?
Sabastiya Square is empty, its souvenir and snack shop closed. Our small group of eight Siraj Center volunteers are the lone visitors. A short walk away is the Holy Land Sun Restaurant where we have been invited to rest and have refreshing cold drinks..
The large beautiful restaurant is empty. The owner, Hafez Kayed welcomes each of us with a handshake and a warm smile then joins us at a table.
â€œSince the first day of the Intifada in 2000, the restaurant has done no business,â€ he says, â€œexcept for the occasional weddings: but they are for locals and people here have little money so it does not pay.â€
Hafez tells the history of the restaurant. It was built in 1995 and had been open for tourism since Jordan the time when Jordan was in control of the region. But for eight years now, since 2000, tourists have not come. It is because of the new road. â€œWe are only ten kilometers (6 miles) from Nablus but it takes four or five hours to get here.â€ With checkpoints on the mountains, and such treacherous roads it can take a whole day, so who would come? Here on the north side of Nablus, â€œSabastiya is forgotten.â€
I look out the wide windows surrounding the building that overlook the valley below and the rolling hills beyond. Close by there are olive, figs and honey locust trees that scent the arid air with combined fragrance. It is a setting that sweeps through centuries and adds legendary charm to countless generations of dwellers in this land of many peoples.
Hafez continues his story,
â€œIt should take ten minutes to reach us from Nablus,â€
His sad eyes betray a smile of resignation but he ends on a note of hope. â€œI have some imports I do,â€ he said. But even with another business, it is difficult. He told the story of an import that had a name similar to that of an Israeli brand. Israeli officials impounded his goods and the case ended up in the courts.
â€œNothing here is easy,â€ he said.
My thought on leaving: Everyone is being denied the beauty of this scenery, a good Palestinian dinner and the charm of a man who enjoys seeing the pleasure he brings to everyone who comes to his Holy Land Sun Restaurant.
Unless you come and stay awhile in the West Bank of Palestine, until you travel inside the occupied territories, listen to the Palestinian people from every walk of life, you cannot understand how difficult it is for them to live under an occupation that impacts their economy, living standard, and the psyche of each man, woman and child.
Without seeing the walls that divide with your own eyes, the settlements that dot the countryside, the rutted roads and checkpoints that prevent employment and create poverty you cannot know the near impossible task of imposing a two state solution.
Presidential candidate Barak Obama spent less than a day in Ramallah in a carefully orchestrated flash visit. Few here could see his brief â€œfly overâ€ as anything other than a political pitch to win an election.
My wish would be for each candidate to spend some days on the ground here in the occupied West Bank. Iâ€™d like to take them on a bus ride from Bethlehem to Sabastiya or to Ramallah to give them the experience of a ride on alternate Palestinian roads that avoid Jerusalem. Let each experience checkpoints, be detained and even imprisoned. I want them to hear the stories first hand from Palestinian and Israeli friends who can no longer visit one another though they live short distances away.
There is a longing to be free in every Palestinian heart, to travel unafraid of checkpoint delays, arrests, detentions and interrogations. And a longing to be free from the worry of nightly home invasions, and random shootings and house demolitions.
But these are the realities Americans do not know. I wonder if our presidential candidates know and if they do, whether they care to address the problem openly and work diligently to solve it.