History destroyed - GulfToday

History destroyed

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.


Judges attend a hearing at the International Court of Justice.

Israel stands accused before the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) of obliterating or damaging cultural heritage sites since the Gaza war began four months ago.

In the documentation of its suit charging Israel with genocide, South Africa stated, “Israel has damaged and destroyed numerous centres of Palestinian learning and culture,” notably libraries, religious sites, and places of ancient historical importance. South Africa appealed to the ICJ to urgently “protect against further, severe and irreparable harm to the rights including the
heritage of the Palestinian people under the genocide convention.”

Both Palestinians and Israelis are signatories of the 1954 Hague Convention which mandates protection for cultural heritage during war. Al-Jazeera quoted Heritage for Peace President Isber Sabrine who argued that cultural heritage is collateral damage of [the crime of] genocide.”

He stated, “Israel is trying to erase the connection of the people with their land. It’s very clear and intentional. Gaza’s heritage is part of its people, it’s history and their connection.”

Gaza has served as the bridge between Egypt and the Levant since the dawn of history. Gaza was ruled by the Egyptians in the early 15th century BC, Philistines in the 12th century BC, Babylonians 7th century BC, and the Greeks after the conquest by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.

The Romans, who succeeded in 63 BC, turned Gaza into a flourishing trading hub. Subsequently, Gaza was ruled by the Byzantine, Arab, and Ottoman empires, each of which contributed to Gaza’s rich heritage. Britain conquered Gaza in 1917, the year British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour penned his infamous letter pledging to facilitate a “Jewish national home” in Palestine.

This led to the establishment of Israel by war in 1948, the brief Israeli occupation of Gaza in 1956-57 and the ongoing 57-year Israeli occupation of Gaza. Since then, Gaza has mounted successive insurgencies and endured full-scale Israeli wars in 2008-2009, 2012, 2014, 2021, and 2023. All have taken a toll on the population and the civilian infrastructure, including heritage. The ongoing Israeli offensive has been the most deadly, damaging, and devastating.

Due to constant bombing and fighting, international and local experts have not been able to assess the state of Gaza’s heritage but satellite images and mapping have provided a general picture of the situation. Britain-based Forensic Architecture has documented evidence of the destruction of heritage, which the organisation has said is “deliberate.”

While 195 heritage sites have been identified as damaged or destroyed by Al-Jazeera, UNESCO said it has verified damage to 22 sites, including five religious sites, 10 historical buildings, two locations containing cultural property, one monument, one museum and three archaeological sites.

The Museums Association reported that the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor urged UNESCO to “fulfill its role in dispatching a fact-finding mission to uncover the fate of thousands of archaeological artefacts in the Gaza Strip, assess the conditions of historical sites, and hold Israel accountable for its violations targeting cultural and human heritage in the region.”

The fate of the Omari Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque, located in Gaza City’s Old Town, is emblematic of the turbulent history of the strategic coastal Strip. The site originally hosted an ancient Philistine temple which, in the fifth century, was transformed into a Christian church, and, in the seventh century, became a mosque, cited as “beautiful” by the iconic 10th century Arab traveller Ibn Battuta. In the 12th century, the Crusaders used the site for a church which as razed in 1187, after the fall of Jerusalem to the army of Salaheddin. Rebuilt by the Mamelukes and destroyed in the 13th century, the Great Mosque was renewed by the Ottomans in the 16th. Bombarded by the British during World War I, the mosque was rebuilt in 1925 and largely destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on Dec.7, leaving only its square minaret to preside over the rubble. The adjacent library containing a valuable collection of ancient manuscripts is reported to have been destroyed.

In January 2023, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Gaza inaugurated as a museum the renovated archaeological site if a 1,700-year-old church in the Jabaliya refugee camp in the north of the strip. Ministry Director Jamal Abu Rida told Al Monitor at the time, “This church is one of the most important churches in the Levant, as it was established in the era of Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I in 497. It was located on the ancient trade land route linking Gaza with the Levant and was a rest stop for Christian pilgrims heading to the Holy Land.”

The church had mosaic floors depicting birds, fruit, and mythical beasts. Having survived 24 Byzantine emperors and 17 Muslim rulers, the church was targeted by “successive Israeli offensives” which damaged the mosaics. They had been restored, covered, and viewed by visitors from wooden walkways. Artifacts found at the site were displayed in a newly built exhibition hall. The work was carried out between 2017-2021 by France’s Premiere Urgence Internationale and the British Council, in partnership with the French School of Biblical and Archaeological Research. Al Jazeera reported that in October, the museum was destroyed. Like the Omari Mosque, the church/museum was emblematic of Gaza.

My favourite of Gaza’s museums was Al-Mat’haf, a stone-built room constructed in 2008 on the edge of Gaza City by contractor Jawdat Khoudary to house 350 ancient bowls, jugs, and other artifacts found on building sites. Busloads of school children used to visit Al-Mat’haf, as do children around the world to learn of their heritage. After touring the exhibits the Gazan children would have a snack at the simple sea-side restaurant beside al-Mat’haf before returning to refugee camps where most Gazans live. Last year Al-Mat’haf, the restaurant, and the attached hotel were sseverely damaged by Israeli bombing.

Israeli strikes have also levelled modern cultural facilities in Gaza city, including the municipal library and the Rashad Shawwa Cultural Centre which hosted addresses by South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, France’s Jacques Chirac, and the United States’ Bill Clinton. In 1998, Clinton was on a mission to promote the faltering 1993 Oslo Accord which Palestinians expected would end the occupation and lead to statehood. Like his predecessors and successors, he failed to achieve this goal, ensuring that the struggle for possession of Palestine continues at the expense of the Palestinian people.

Photo: AFP


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