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Visit to Nablus and the Samaritan Community

22 June 2010
David H. Shinn

With an estimated population of 100,000, Nablus is one of the largest
cities in the West Bank. Located north of Jerusalem and Ramallah on route 60,
previously known as the King’s Highway, I last passed through Nablus in 1965 when it
was under Jordanian administration. Nablus, a Palestinian city, has a large and vibrant
souk that dates back to the Ottoman period. Much of it is covered. Any visitor to Nablus
should spend some time there. It is one of the better Arab souks. Nablus is
overwhelmingly Muslim, but still has a very small Christian minority.
Until recently, Nablus was one of the most difficult cities for Palestinians to enter
or exit. There are four Israeli check points around the city. About a year ago, Israel
decided to relax the stringent regulations imposed on Palestinians for entering or leaving
Nablus. Although the check points remain in place, this change of policy has had a
dramatic and positive effect on local commerce. As one resident of Nablus commented,
it was like turning on the lights. Nablus is now bustling with commercial activity and
there is considerable new construction.
There reportedly has been no shooting in the city over the past six months. The
Palestinian Authority, which controls the city, collected most of the weapons from local
residents. Although Israeli security forces occasionally enter the city at night for snatch
and grab operations, the missions seem to be accomplished without firing a shot. The
residents of Nablus appreciate the greater freedom of movement now permitted by Israeli
security, but this has not translated into significantly reduced hostility towards Israel.
The primary purpose of the trip to Nablus was a visit to the Samaritan community
on the top of Mt. Jarzim, also known as Mt. Grizim, that over looks Nablus. There is an
Israeli security check point at the top of the mountain before you enter the community.
Israeli personnel at this check point still prevent most Palestinians from entering,
apparently because there is an Israeli military facility on the mountain.
The Samaritans adhere to an Abrahamic religion closely related to Judaism. They
date back to the Kingdom of Samaria in the first half of the second millennium BCE.
They claim to be descendents of the Northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh.
Along the way, they established good relations with Jesus. The Samaritans claim their
worship is the true religion of the ancient Israelites prior to the Babylonian Exile. They
constituted more than a million followers in late Roman times and then declined to
several tens of thousands a few centuries ago. Today, some 700 Samaritans live in two
localities. About 300 Samaritans reside on the top of Mt. Grizim, their holiest location,
and another 400 live in the Israeli city of Holon, a suburb of Jaffa/Tel Aviv.
The community on Mt. Grizim has good relations with Palestinians and receives
some support from the Palestinian ministry of culture. They speak Arabic but use ancient
Hebrew in their religious practices. The Samaritans receive Palestinian passports. At
one time, they had one seat on the Palestinian legislative council, but this is no longer the
case. By contrast, the community in Holon relies on support from the government of
Israel and receives Israeli passports. The Samaritans have a high priest, a position passed
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through the family. Women must marry within their faith or leave the community. Men
can marry outside their faith so long as the spouse converts to Samaritanism.
The community on Mt. Grizim recently completed a small, informative museum
designed to explain the faith to interested individuals. They day of my visit to the
museum there was a busload of Orthodox Jews in the museum who had obviously
reached the top of Mt. Grizim by a road controlled by Israeli security. They would not
have taken the route through Nablus city, which is controlled by the Palestinian
Authority. Most of the visitors at the museum apparently come from Israel. The
Samaritans have initiated an outreach program to the Palestinians in an effort to explain
their community and improve relations.
My Samaritan guide, who lives on Mt. Grizim, makes a living by operating a
tahini factory. Made from sesame seed purchased in Ethiopia, tahini is used to make
hummus and a number of other Middle Eastern food products. He sells 70 percent of his
product in New York City.
The tiny Samaritan community in the West Bank is just another indication of the
religious complexity of the region. Although the religion of the Samaritans is close to
Judaism, the Mt. Grizim community speaks Arabic, carries Palestinian passports and has
cordial relations with the Arabs. Alcohol is available in the Samaritan community on the
top of Mt. Grizim, but not in the city of Nablus below.