Israel Destroys Palestinian Cultural Heritage Sites in Gaza
February 28 2024
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Israel’s military onslaught and indiscriminate bombardment of the Gaza Strip for the last five months have resulted in massive death, devastation, and a humanitarian catastrophe for the 2.3 million Palestinians, reaching an unprecedented scale in modern history. Nearly 30,000 people have been killed, with over 70,000 injured and more than 1.7 million displaced. Nearly 80% of the Gaza Strip’s built environment and farmlands have been decimated. Civilian infrastructure, including residential and public buildings, hospitals, schools, universities, mosques, and churches have been intentionally targeted.

Additionally, the Palestinian Ministry of Culture has reported that 207 archaeological sites and buildings of cultural and historical significance, out of a total of 320, have been reduced to rubble or severely damaged. These include old mosques, churches, cemeteries, museums, libraries, and archives. So far, only a preliminary assessment of the destruction and damage to cultural heritage has been conducted, relying on local eyewitnesses, as well as on international NGOs and satellite images.

Archaeological sites along the coast, such as Tell es-Sakan, Tell Ruqaish, Tell al-‘Ajul, Tell al-Mintar, and Tell Rafah, have been severely damaged by Israeli bombardments. The site of Deir al-Balah, where remains of a Philistine cemetery (dating to the Late Bronze period 1550-1200 BCE) were revealed during the excavations 1972-1982, including the famous anthropoid clay coffins, has also been badly damaged.

The archaeological site of Blakhiyya, identified as Anthedon Harbour, Gaza’s ancient seaport dating from 800 BCE - 1100, has been largely damaged by airstrikes and military activities, as shown in a report by Forensic Architecture. Excavated by a Palestinian–French expedition (1995-2005), it is one of three Gaza sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List. There is also a fear that artifacts will be looted or illicitly transferred to Israel.

A warehouse for the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in the Sheikh Ridwan neighborhood, consisting of more than 4,000 archaeological objects mainly from the excavations at Blakhiyya, was seized by the Israeli army, and its fate remains unknown.

The site of Saint Hilarion Monastery at Tell Umm Amer, near al-Nuseirat refugee camp, was also damaged. Saint Hilarion was born in Palestine but lived for some time in Egypt, and finally, he settled in Cyprus, where he died in 371. He is known as the founder of monasticism in Palestine, and he is celebrated on his feast day in Cyprus on Oct. 21 of each year. The monastery, one of the sites on UNESCO’s World Heritage Tentative List in Palestine, was excavated by a joint Palestinian-French expedition. 

The site of Mukheitim (or Byzantine Church, dated to the 5th century) in Jabalia has been largely damaged and turned into a base for the Israeli military. The church is known for its splendid mosaic floors and Greek inscriptions. Both the monastery and the church were restored and renovated by Palestinian, French, and Spanish teams funded by the British Council, involving community archaeological activities.

Among several Christian places of worship that have been damaged, the Orthodox Church of Saint Porphyrios, believed to be the world’s third oldest church, was also bombed on Oct. 19, 2023, where at least 18 Christian Palestinians were reportedly killed. Porphyrios was the Bishop of Gaza in the 5th century, and his tomb still exists in Gaza. 

The core of the Old City of Gaza has also been relentlessly devastated, and within it, 144 prominent historical monuments have been destroyed. Among these is the Great ´Umari Mosque, originally the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, which was built by the Crusaders in the 12th century and converted into a mosque by Salah al-Din in 1187. The nearby Al-Qissariya, Gaza’s medieval Old City market, and a public bathhouse named Hammam al-Samara — the last surviving building of its kind dating to the Mamluk period — have reportedly been turned into rubble. 

The renovated Pasha’s Palace, the former governor’s residence during the Mamluk and Ottoman times, which was converted in recent years into an archaeological museum, has also been largely destroyed. The Ibn ‘Uthman Mosque in the Shuja’iyya neighborhood, dating back to the 15th century and serving at the burial site for the Prophet Muhammad’s great-grandfather Hashem, has been severely damaged.

Gaza’s museums have not been spared from the bombardment. The Al-Qarara Cultural Museum in southern Gaza, which housed a pottery collection from the Byzantine period, suffered serious damage. The Rafah Museum, located in southern Gaza, was hit by an Israeli airstrike and partially destroyed. Another private museum, named Al-Mathaf, founded by Jawdat al-Khoudari as a future national archaeology museum, was bombed, and its contents were devastated.

The indiscriminate Israeli bombardments have also destroyed several old houses in Gaza City that were renovated and converted into cultural heritage centers, such as As-Saqqa Palace, Subat al-‘Alami, Khader al-Tarazi House, and Ghussein House. The Orthodox Cultural Centre in Tell al-Hawa region of Gaza was completely destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.

Many of these sites mentioned above were detailed in South Africa’s case against the Israeli regime for the crime of genocide at the International Court of Justice. Indeed, South Africa’s submission notes that the destruction of the physical monuments to the history and heritage of the Palestinians in Gaza is part of the ongoing genocide. The fact that this destruction of Palestinian cultural heritage is carried out in conjunction with the mass-scale killing of Palestinians demonstrates the Israeli political and military leadership’s intent to destroy the Palestinian people and their cultural identity.

Whilst the destruction in Gaza is unprecedented, the targeting of Palestinian cultural heritage is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the Israeli regime has systematically pursued policies to destroy Palestinian cultural heritage and identity. Indeed, as with all settler colonial projects, the aim is to erase the Palestinian people from their land, and this necessitates the destruction of their culture and history.

Reacting to the ongoing destruction of cultural heritage in Gaza, UNESCO reported that at least 22 archaeological and historical sites were damaged. It granted “provisional enhanced protection” to Saint Hilarion monastery complex, the highest level of immunity established by the 1954 Hague Convention and its Second Protocol. However, UNESCO’s response ranged from silence to moderate concern. It expressed “deep concern about the adverse impact this conflict could have on cultural heritage in Palestine and Israel and calls on all actors to scrupulously respect international law”. In the same context, it called “on all parties involved to strictly respect international law. Cultural property should not be targeted or used for military purposes, as it is considered to be civilian infrastructure”.

While referring to such destruction in passive language with no reference to the Israeli regime’s large-scale indiscriminate bombing, UNESCO is not only failing to take a stance on the genocide, but it is also using passive language, thus neglecting to adhere to its own established precedent. The response of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) was similar,  calling “on all parties to do all in their power to protect cultural heritage.” ICOMOS’ reaction was almost identical,  calling upon “all parties to respect international law and conventions,” warning “against the potential increase in smuggling and destruction of cultural objects,” and “preventing [the] illicit transfer of cultural property,” as enshrined in the 1970 UNESCO Convention. 

Indeed, UNESCO’s response to the destruction of cultural heritage in Ukraine was qualitatively different and came with strong condemnation. Following Russian airstrikes on the city of Odesa in Ukraine, which damaged several significant cultural sites, including the Transfiguration Cathedral, founded in 1794, UNESCO published a statement on July 23, 2023, saying it was “deeply dismayed … and condemns in the strongest terms the brazen attack carried out by the Russian forces.” In another statement, Audrey Azoulay, UNESCO’s director general, said: “I strongly condemn this attack against culture, and I urge the Russian Federation to take meaningful action to comply with its obligations under international law, including the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 1972 World Heritage Convention.”

So far, UNESCO has failed to take a similar position on the Israeli regime’s intentional targeting of cultural heritage sites in the Gaza Strip. This is hardly surprising; such hypocrisy and double standards characterize other international organizations and Western governments concerning the unfolding genocidal war on the Palestinian people of the Gaza Strip.

Whilst the focus is rightly on the mass killing and maiming of Palestinians in Gaza, we must not forget the devastation being wreaked on Palestinian tangible and intangible cultural heritage. This heritage comprises a myriad of archaeological and historical sites representing multiple cultures, as well as the traditional, religious, and social life of Palestinians, including both Muslims and Christians alike. Indeed, it is this richness in culture and history that the Israeli regime is also trying to erase.

About The Author: 

Dr. Mahmoud Hawari is a researcher and writer. His academic research focuses on Islamic archaeology, archaeology and politics, and cultural heritage of Palestine. He was former Director of the Palestinian Museum, Birzeit, and was professor of archaeology at Bethlehem, Birzeit and al-Quds Universities.  

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