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Bombing Historical Sites in Gaza: 'Israel Is Destroying Everything Beautiful'

The 13th century Great Omari Mosque, the Church of Saint Porphyrius, the excavation site at the ancient port: Alongside thousands of dead and hundreds of thousands of displaced, dozens of heritage sites in the Gaza Strip have been destroyed by Israeli bombardment

The information we have regarding antiquities and cultural assets in Gaza is limited and fragmented, and collection and verification of details is difficult. Even those dealing with the matter on the Israeli side don't feel comfortable saying at this point what happened and which sites were damaged. They certainly do not assign blame for the harm.

Is tank fire, aerial bombardment or demolishing buildings with explosives accomplished easier now than before? Some of those interviewed below are engaged in the complex work of gathering the information and are cautious about stating definitive conclusions. Others, mostly in the foreign press, are more decisive in the wording of their assessments.

According to the Middle East Monitor website, Israel deliberately destroyed dozens of archeological and antiquities sites throughout the Gaza Strip. In a long article the website detailed intentional damage caused to eight museums, including in Rafah and Khan Younis in Gaza's south. Additionally, the website highlighted damage caused to dozens of mosques, churches, and heritage and culture sites in Gaza City. 21 cultural centers have been damaged, the article alleged.

The war in Gaza has been ongoing for two and a half months, with intense, prolonged battles in the city's various neighborhoods. Tens of thousands have been killed in the fighting, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced from their homes. Under such conditions, few naturally spend much time considering damage to religious or archeological sites, cultural institutions or heritage. These issues sound almost marginal now, and yet attention must be given to them.

The clear call, once considered obvious, to protect and preserve cultural heritage assets now sounds like a preachy statement, even out of touch, with many lacking patience for it. But the fact is that Israel, perhaps for lack of choice, lack of care, or maybe even deliberately, is destroying ancient cultural treasures. The impact of such destruction will occupy us for years to come.

The beautiful mosque

Every list summarizing the damage to cultural heritage sites in Gaza begins with the Great Mosque. Also known as the Great Omari Mosque, it was a symbol representing Gaza's long history, according to historians and archeologists. In early December, the oldest mosque structure in Gaza was destroyed in an Israel Defense Forces airstrike. The IDF said in a statement that the mosque, whose turret still stands, was used as terrorist infrastructure and a tunnel shaft was discovered in it. The roofed marketplace adjacent to the mosque, a 13th century structure, has apparently also been damaged.

'Historical sites in Gaza have been completely abandoned right now.'

In an article by archeologists Alon Arad and Talya Ezrahi from Emek Shaveh – an Israeli NGO made up of archaeologists and social activists working to preserve heritage rights and antiquities sites as a public asset – on the Local Call website, the two wrote, "Without getting into the question of who is to blame, the massive damage to the (Omari) mosque itself is tragic damage to a historical site of international value."

The Great Mosque was built on the foundations of a Byzantine church, itself erected on the site of an ancient Philistine temple. In the early Muslim period a mosque was built on the site, which reverted back to a church upon Crusader conquest. The Mamluks rebuilt it as a mosque in the 13th century, and the Ottomans renovated it in the 16th century. The great 14th century traveler Ibn Battuta dubbed it "the Beautiful Mosque."

Dr. Dotan Halevy, historian and post-doc fellow at the Van Leer Institute, has been studying Gaza City's history for the past 15 years. His doctoral thesis dealt with the region's history between the middle of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th century. Enumerating the sites for which there is credible evidence of damage sustained during the war, Halevy added that a distinction must be made between sites used daily, such as mosques and churches, and archeological sites not used on a regular basis.

As for the Grand Omari Mosque, the concern is not just about damage to the structure itself, but to the library that operated within it, Halevy explained. The mosque housed one of the largest Palestinian libraries of Islamic manuscripts, which were collected over many long years. It had sustained damage in previous wars. "If indeed the library has been damaged, that's worse than damage to the structure itself," Halevy said.

"We're trying to find out the extent of damage to the library, which is critical because this is an extremely important depository of manuscripts," Halevy added. He referenced the British Library's rescue project, the Endangered Archives Project, which has in recent years funded a systematic scanning and digitization of the mosque library's manuscripts.

Another prominent site is the Church of Saint Porphyrius, which has apparently been damaged, but not completely destroyed. The fifth century Greek Orthodox church lies in the Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza City. It is the oldest operating church in the city, and is considered one of the most ancient in all of Christendom. Two halls in the structure were reportedly damaged in an Israeli airstrike on October 20. The Greek Orthodox Church termed the damaged to the structure "a war crime."

Another site damaged is Qasr al-Basha, also known as Radwan Castle and Napoleon's Fort. The site served as a large palace in the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, and during the British period it served as a police station. In recent years the compound hosted a museum displaying items and antiquities from bygone eras. Recently on display was a 4,500 year-old stone statue of the goddess Anat – the goddess of beauty, love, and war in Canaanite mythology.

Many question marks hover over another structure – Tell Umm Amer in Nuseirat. This is the Saint Hilarion Monastery, named for one of the first third-century Christian desert monks. The Byzantine monastery is considered one of the central Christian sites in the Gaza Strip. The place has been renovated in recent years and in recent weeks the Palestinian Authority asked UNESCO to recognize it in an emergency process as a World Heritge Site. Halevy says that this request may have influenced the fact that the monastery was not totally destroyed, in spite of reports to that effect. Additional reports claim that the southern cemetery in Gaza was destroyed.

Prominent among the other sites that were apparently damaged is the excavation site in Anthedon – the ancient port of Gaza. It was reported that the site was damaged, but it's hard to find evidence to confirm this. The area previously sustained serious damage to its antiquities by Hamas, while it expanded its military training zone.

Tell es-Sakan, an early Canaanite settlement, was also apparently damaged before the war, destroyed by Hamas to expand construction. The destruction aroused great anger among French and Palestinian archaeologists.

Among the modern buildings of historic value that were damaged, Halevy points to the Rashad Shawa Cultural Center (named after the mayor of Gaza in the 1970s). The Brutalist exposed concrete structure was built by architect Saad Mohaffel, completed 30 years ago, and acheived iconic status in Gaza. This structure was designed to be the home of the Palestinian parliament after the establsihment of a state.

For the soul

When asked about his feelings in light of this evidence, Halevy fell silent for a moment and then replied: "There's profound sadness now. The sadness is for the heritage that has been destroyed, but also for the fact that people from Gaza told us in recent years 'Israel is destroying everything beautiful. Israel is destroying anything in which its possible to find some consolation.' I'm not a military man and I don't know which of the activities is justified, but it's sad. In the past there were military operations which included professionals who pointed out what shouldn't be destroyed. The impression today is that this isn't being done. It's important to leave something for the soul, for history."

Is it hard for us to regard Gaza as a place with culture and residents?

"We simply don't think about Gaza. We built a fence, we decided that it's a hostile entity and since then we don't think about what's there. As far as we're concerned it's a black hole. There are 2 million people there, it's like a small country. My perspective is also limited, but from research and familiarity with people I see Gaza as a living, dynamic place, as a place where people managed to live in a relatively normal way. The places that are now being destroyed exist in my awareness."

We aren't distinguishing between Gaza and Hamas?

"In the Israeli public discussion there's no such distinction. They're all Hamas or they all support Hamas, and that's factually incorrect. Look at the cross section of ages in Gaza and you'll understand that half the population was born into the rule of Hamas, which means that they couldn't choose anything else. In Israel people know very little and they attribute everything to Hamas. I think that the failure of October 7 is one of awareness. We don't know anything about this place and therefore we don't know how to anticipate what will emerge from it."

Archaeologist Alon Arad, the executive director of the Emek Shaveh NGO, explained that there are about 300 archaeological sites in Gaza, some of which are familiar from the period of Israeli rule. There is a general understanding of what's happening at these sites, but detailed surveillance is very difficult, Arad said. Real archaeological work has been almost impossible in Gaza in the past 50 years and especially in the 15 years since the beginning of Hamas rule. The only research was conducted by the École Biblique, the French archaeological school in Jerusalem, which, according to Arad, has completed several projects rescuing archeological sites in Gaza.

Arad also pointed to "an entire world of private museums that operated in Gaza and only recently have we started to map them," as well as to several archives in the churches and outside of them.

"It's hard to give a full situation assessment, but the starting point is that from the moment that Israel announced the destruction of the Hamas regime, this [destruction] includes the government buildings and symbols of culture and government. These places are central to building an identity. They're a source of personal and national pride. The moment you declare that your goal is to dismantle Hamas you're also dismantling Gazan identity. There isn't anyone today who will protect the cultural assets in Gaza."

Is the damage to the sites deliberate or is it done incidentally?

"That's a complex question. There is apparently a deliberate process, but I can't say where it's coming from. Is there presumably a computer presentation from the chief of staff that says 'These are the Gazan cultural assets and if we destroy them we'll harm the enemy,' or does a junior commander in the field decide that some structure looks 'Hamas-related' to him and therefore he destroys it? The spirit of the commander is clear to everyone – to destroy Hamas and everything connected to it. Beyond that we're in the world of incidental damage, which stems from ignorance.

"International heritage law forbids the use of heritage sites as military infrastructure. It's forbidden to build military outposts on them, and on the other hand it's forbidden to damage them deliberately. It's clear to all of us that the moment a force is attacked from inside a mosque it returns fire. You don't expect a junior commander to say to his men: 'No, no, that's a fifth-century building, even if they fired at us we won't destroy it.'

"And yet international law refers to proportionality. If a few bullets were fired from inside a mosque we won't drop a one-ton bomb on it. It's hard for me to judge the decision-making of young soldiers in danger, but the result is that there's serious damage now. It's clear to me that neither side is adopting an approach that helps to preserve the important historical sites."

Has anything changed in the present war?

"The impression is that the IDF is working with far more permissive considerations. We see the widespread destruction in Gaza. The heritage sites are no exception. It's clear to us that Hamas uses at least some of the sites, but the impression is that the historical sites in Gaza have been completely abandoned at the moment, because there's nobody to take care of them. The concern is for food, fuel, water, and the attention that you can pay to preserving a mosaic is nonexistent.

"There are several international groups that operated in the Strip, but they can't prevent destruction. Even an organization like UNESCO has no mandate and no teeth, and yet it should be noted that there are three sites on the list of Tentative World Heritage Sites – the ancient Gaza port, Tell Umm Amer and the area of Wadi Gaza coastal wetlands, which is a candidate as a Natural Heritage Site."

Will we regret this destruction?

"Of course we will. We share the heritage of this place. When it comes to future rehabilitation – the Palestinian state is losing important assets, as part of its identity and as part of the local economy that's based on culture and tourism. These sites are a resource of the local community. On them they can build an identity and an economy and a life. These places can and must be a source of pride. We have to respect and value them. If we stop assuming that that every call by a muezzin is a frightening attack we'll be in a better situation."

A part of the Land of Israel

Prof. Reuven Amitai, a professor of Muslim History East at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, is an expert on Gaza in the Mamluk period (about 700 years ago). This week he helped me understand the importance of Gaza in our part of the world. Gaza was one of the most important cities in the Land of Israel during the Mamluk period, he said, along with Safed and Jerusalem. The city served at the time as a provincial capital and as an important waystation on an interregional commercial artery, and was without doubt an integral part of the Land of Israel. The separation between Gaza and Israel that we are seeing today is a new invention, only a few decades old.

Thanks to the strategic importance of Gaza, several important bridges were built in the region – in Ashdod, near Yavne and over the Shikma Stream. Gaza is also surrounded by an important agricultural hinterland, and in its environs they grew grains, grapes, figs, melons and other fruits. According to Prof. Amitai, there aren't many remains in the city from that period. There were several mosques in the city, first and foremost the Grand Omari Mosque, which has already been mentioned here. He said the Ottomans received a well organized inheritance with a future, with about 15 villages between Gaza and Majdal (Ashkelon).

Until 1948 there were a series of settlements between Gaza and Ashkelon. There was also a Jewish community there, said Amitai, both in the fifth century and later in the 14th century. During the Crusader period there was apparently no Jewish presence in Gaza. Afterwards there was a flourishing Jewish community that attests to stability and prosperity. At the end of the Mamluk period about 80 Jewish families lived there, while during the Mamluk period Israel became a land of Muslims, with the Gaza landscape becoming entirely Islamic.

While researching this article, I came across a recent written report from the Civil Administration's archaeological unit titled "To attack and preserve – Operation Swords of Iron. Emphasis on preserving antiquities and heritage." After mentioning Gaza's biblical past and the many structures, cemeteries, museums, ancient ports in the area, the officer wrote: "Amid the complexity of the war and its operational difficulties, ethical and committed IDF soldiers and officers found space to deal with ancient findings in the area of the Gaza Strip."

The officer presents a case for preserving antiquities in the field and warns that taking souvenirs will be considered looting. He added, "In the event that there is an operational need to engage in identification [of Hamas fighters or equipment] on an antiquities area (a church, mosque, port, museum and so on) there should be consideration of using methods to minimize damage to the site. There should be an attempt to rescue whatever possible, subject to the strategic possibilities."


Haaretz, 2023


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