How Israel’s bombing campaign endangers Gaza’s archaeological treasures

Special How Israel’s bombing campaign endangers Gaza’s archaeological treasures
Saint Hilarion, in the center of Gaza, is an ancient Roman necropolis that is emblematic of the coastal enclave’s underdeveloped, archaeological treasures. (AFP/file)
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Updated 28 November 2023
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How Israel’s bombing campaign endangers Gaza’s archaeological treasures

How Israel’s bombing campaign endangers Gaza’s archaeological treasures
  • Latest Israel-Hamas war has not only killed innocent civilians but also damaged sites of ancient and modern history
  • Enclave located close to holy places of Christianity, Islam and Judaism and on ancient Egypt-Levant trade routes

DUBAI: Steeped in more than 5,000 years of history, Gaza has long been an archaeological treasure trove, with workers at construction sites regularly uncovering ancient gems.

Discoveries such as the monastery of Saint Hilarion, and Tel Umm el-Amr, arguably Gaza’s largest archaeological site, are perhaps unsurprising given Gaza’s proximity to holy places of Christianity, Islam and Judaism, three of the world’s biggest religions.

Gaza’s historical significance stems also from its location on ancient trade routes between Egypt and the Levant.

But with the past seven weeks of Israeli bombardment, there is growing concern over the future for both those sites uncovered and the ones yet to be discovered.




French archaeologists, Dominique M. Cabaret and Jean-Baptiste Humbert at the French Palestinian archaeological storage in Gaza City. (File photo by Fadel Al-Utol, 2021)

According to the Gaza-based Endowments and Religious Affairs Ministry, over 31 mosques have been destroyed and more than three churches severely damaged since fighting began in the wake of the deadly Oct. 7 raid by Hamas in southern Israel.

“Human life is more important than artifacts,” Jean-Michel de Tarragon, archivist for The Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem, a former professor of history at the Sorbonne and an archaeologist who excavated in Gaza from 1995-2005, told Arab News.

The pause since 2005 has been no coincidence. While the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords had made the work of archaeologists easier, de Tarragon said Hamas’ success in the 2006 Palestinian legislative election led to his team’s departure from the enclave.

(Hamas fighters took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007 from Fatah officials of the Palestinian National Authority, which led to the de-facto division of the Occupied Palestinian territories into two entities).

De Tarragon said the current war, which has seen the seashore “heavily bombed, seems to have completely destroyed the Greek Anthedon.”

Located on the Mediterranean coast in northwest Gaza, Anthedon was the region’s first sea port and had been inhabited from 800 BC to 1100AD, housing a variety of cultures from the Babylonian to the early Islamic period.

“From a historical point of view, during the period of late antiquity, Gaza was the sea port of the Nabataean trade network. It was the port of Petra, now Jordan, and also of AlUla, in Saudi Arabia, for ships heading in the direction of Rome and the Roman Empire,” he said.




Gaza-born and Dubai-based artist Hazem Harb, with artwork. (Supplied)

“As the secondary city of Gaza, Anthedon was very important. Another port, called Maioumas, existed in the south. But we did not dig there. We discovered Anthedon, then a beach camp, on the northern edge.”

Such is Anthedon’s rich history that UNESCO had placed it on a tentative list of Palestinian locations to qualify as a World Heritage site.

It is not alone, however, in facing an uncertain postwar fate, with de Tarragon pointing to a fifth-century Byzantine church, Mkheitim, as having been destroyed in the fighting although he noted that the mosaic floor appears to have survived.

“From now on, no archaeological work is envisioned in Gaza, only restoration work,” he said.

The fragility of life in war-prone Gaza and the intensity of the latest conflict have made it impossible to determine how many archaeological sites have been destroyed and the extent of the damage those still standing have suffered.

As to what it will take to bring them back to life remains a question for the future. For now, the sites serve a very different purpose: shelter from war.

Among them is one of the oldest working churches in the Palestinian enclave: Church of Saint Porphyrius.

Struck on the night of Oct. 20, it was reportedly sheltering at least 500 Christians and Muslims, with 16 killed, according to Palestinian officials.




St. Porphyrius Greek Orthodox church in the Old City of Gaza in 1920. (Photo by Father Savignac, Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem.)

In a statement, the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem expressed “its strongest condemnation of the Israeli air strike that has struck its church compound in the city of Gaza.”

Witnesses told AFP news agency the strike damaged the facade of the church and caused an adjacent building to collapse.

“Targeting churches and their institutions, along with the shelter they provide to protect innocent citizens, especially children and women who have lost their homes due to Israeli airstrikes on residential areas over the past 13 days, constitutes a war crime that cannot be ignored,” the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem said.

Speaking to Arab News, Gaza-born and Dubai-based artist Hazem Harb said: “Artifacts are just as important as humans because they were made by us.”

His work has long focused on the incorporation of major sites from his Palestinian homeland.

Echoing a line he posted on the social-media site Instagram regarding the war, Harb said: “As I work with archive photography, all my work is supposed to pose history from a different perspective.

“Much of this photography has been denied from history and this is the same that is happening now with the destruction and legacy of these archaeological places.”

FASTFACTS

• In January this year, French archaeologists discovered 60 ancient graves at a Roman-era cemetery in northern Gaza. 

• The findings, including two sarcophagi made of lead discovered in September, were made during construction of a housing project in Jabaliya.

• Given the rarity of the lead tombs, Palestinian archaeologists suspect social elites are buried at the cemetery.

In a statement on October 25, the International Council of Museums (ICOM) said: “ICOM expresses its deep concern about the current violence affecting Israeli and Palestinian civilians and deplores the significant humanitarian consequences that the conflict has had over the past weeks. ICOM extends its sincerest condolences to those who have lost family, friends, and community due to the violence.

“ICOM stands firm in its commitment to preserving cultural heritage and recalls the imperative of all parties to respect international law and conventions, including the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its two protocols.”

It is well known that museums become sites of smuggling and looting amid the destruction and violence of war.

In October, ICOM warned about the potential increase in looting and the destruction of cultural monuments and objects, stressing the international legal obligations that work to prevent the illicit import, export, and transfer of cultural property, such as the 1970 UNESCO Convention and the 1995 Unidroit Convention.

Amid the violence and administrative collapse in Gaza, these obligations do not seem to have been adhered to.

Gaza is home to around 12 museums that contain approximately 12,000 artifacts. Many of these museums have been subjected to bombing and shelling during the ongoing war.

Museums that have allegedly been destroyed, include the Al-Qarara Cultural Museum near Khan Younis.

It was founded in 2016 and presented the archaeology and history of the area, which was collected and preserved by its founders and local community members.

The museum, which was granted a private license by the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, was designed to educate people about Palestinian cultural heritage and contained 3,500 archaeological and historical artifacts from Gaza, dating back to as far as 4,000 BC.

Another institution severely damaged is the Akkad Museum, which presented a permanent archive of archaeological pieces discovered in Palestine. It was established in 1975 and worked for many years, according to its website, in secret “because of the presence of the Israeli occupation.”

Akkad Museum includes about 2,800 artifacts from prehistoric to modern times.

Another important site has reported damage is the Pasha Palace Museum, which was built during the Mamluk era and became a museum in 2010.

Other crucial monuments based in Gaza include St. Hilarion Monastery, which de Tarragon says, citing his sources, has not been destroyed. The enclave’s largest known Christian monument, it is located in an area called Tel Umm Amer in central Gaza.

It is named after Hilarion, the founder of Palestinian monasticism in around 300 AD. There is also the Hammam Al-Sammara, or the Samaritan Bathhouse, located in Gaza City’s old Zaytoun quarter, a Turkish-style bath house named after the Samaritan community, an ancient offshoot of Judaism. Hammam Al-Sammara dates back to 1320 AD.




Gaza old city, around 1910, from the roof of the Latin Parish school. The Old Mosque is on the left. (Photo by Father Savignac, Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem)

De Tarragon pointed out that the archaeological community still does not know about the fate of many of these structures, so only time will tell.

Wars of the past have already destroyed much of Gaza’s once glistening heritage. They are now remembered by the photographs, the articles and the artworks that sustain their memory.

Even as violence continues to claim more and more civilian lives and remaining structures, Gaza’s contribution to world history, like the thousands of lives that have been lost, should not be forgotten.

As Harb said: “My thought is that there is no difference at all between the human being and our homes because our homes are not just stones.”


Prosthetic limbs center opens at UAE-funded field hospital in Gaza

Prosthetic limbs center opens at UAE-funded field hospital in Gaza
Updated 22 February 2024
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Prosthetic limbs center opens at UAE-funded field hospital in Gaza

Prosthetic limbs center opens at UAE-funded field hospital in Gaza
  • Staff at the center, which will make and fit high-grade, made-to-measure prosthetics, provide rehab services
  • Convoy of 11 trucks carrying 240 tonnes of aid from UAE enters Gaza

DUBAI: A center for prosthetic limbs opened on Wednesday at a UAE-funded field hospital in Gaza. It aims to make and fit high-grade, made-to-measure prosthetics, and offer rehabilitation services to patients.

It is part of the UAE’s Operation Gallant Knight 3 which was launched based on directives from President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan to provide help and support for the Palestinian people.

On its opening day, measurements were taken from 36 patients who require a prosthetic, the Emirates News Agency reported. It is expected that the total number of people helped by the center will exceed 100 in the next few days. Other departments in the field hospital have treated 5,423 other patients so far.

Meanwhile, a humanitarian convoy from the UAE entered Gaza through the Rafah crossing on the border with Egypt, also as part of Operation Gallant Knight 3. It consisted of 11 trucks delivering more than 240 tonnes of aid supplies, including winter clothing, tents, household necessities, food and medical supplies.

As of Tuesday, Emirati officials said more than 15,809 tonnes of humanitarian aid have been delivered to Palestinians as part of Gallant Knight 3 using two cargo ships, 165 flights and 476 trucks.

The UAE has also set up six desalination plants, with a daily production capacity of 1.2 million gallons of water, to aid the people of Gaza. In addition, five automatic bakery machines will be delivered to Gaza from the Egyptian city of Arish.


US senators say it is ‘urgent’ for Hezbollah-Israel war to de-escalate soon

US senators say it is ‘urgent’ for Hezbollah-Israel war to de-escalate soon
Updated 22 February 2024
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US senators say it is ‘urgent’ for Hezbollah-Israel war to de-escalate soon

US senators say it is ‘urgent’ for Hezbollah-Israel war to de-escalate soon
  • Senators Chris Coons and Richard Blumenthal met Lebanese officials on a tour of the region
  • “The next few weeks are a real hinge point — for Gaza, for Israel, for Lebanon, for the Red Sea, for Iraq,” said Coons

BEIRUT: The Israeli military and Hezbollah have a window to de-escalate tensions along Lebanon’s southern border before a possible Israeli military offensive against the Lebanese armed group, two Democratic US senators told Reuters on Wednesday.
Senators Chris Coons and Richard Blumenthal met Lebanese officials on a tour of the region, which has been gripped by conflict following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel, which responded with a heavy air, land, and sea assault on Gaza.
In Lebanon, Israeli shelling has killed nearly 190 Hezbollah fighters and 50 civilians. A dozen Israeli troops and five Israeli civilians have been killed in northern Israel, and tens of thousands have been displaced on each side.
“The next few weeks are a real hinge point — for Gaza, for Israel, for Lebanon, for the Red Sea, for Iraq,” said Coons, adding that a ceasefire for Gaza could have “positive consequences” for Lebanon.
“It could create that window of 45 days, quite likely during Ramadan as well, when the next steps can be taken to begin to build the confidence that could lead to a full implementation of (United Nations Security Council resolution) 1701,” he said.
That 2006 resolution ended the last major conflict between Hezbollah and Israel and says no armed factions should be present in a swathe of south Lebanon except the Lebanese army.
France submitted a written proposal to Lebanon earlier this month on a possible diplomatic resolution. US envoy Amos Hochstein has also been working on a plan, which Coons said he hoped was “making steady progress” without sharing further details. He said there was an “urgency” for both sides to de-escalate.
The senators said they told Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, who heads the Hezbollah-allied Amal Movement, that Israel “is not bluffing” about an offensive.
“It’s not just rhetoric. It will act. And we hope that that message was conveyed to Hezbollah,” Blumenthal said.


Israeli mother of Hamas attack victim says UN worker took son’s body

Israeli mother of Hamas attack victim says UN worker took son’s body
Updated 21 February 2024
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Israeli mother of Hamas attack victim says UN worker took son’s body

Israeli mother of Hamas attack victim says UN worker took son’s body
  • Yonatan Samerano escaped the militants’ bloody attack on the Nova music festival in the Negev desert, but was killed at nearby kibbutz Beeri
  • The Israeli government has said a man seen on a video dragging Samerano’s body into a white jeep was a social worker for the UNRWA

TEL AVIV: The mother of a 21-year-old man killed in Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel on Wednesday accused a United Nations worker of taking his body to Gaza.
Yonatan Samerano escaped the militants’ bloody attack on the Nova music festival in the Negev desert, but was killed at nearby kibbutz Beeri.
The Israeli government has said a man seen on a video dragging Samerano’s body into a white jeep was a social worker for the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).
Israel last month accused a number of UNRWA workers of taking part in the Hamas attack, prompting several countries to suspend funding to the agency and triggering two separate investigations.
At a news conference in Tel Aviv, Samerano’s mother Ayelet called for the return of her son’s body.
“How can social workers for an organization that claims to promote good in this world do something so cruel and inhuman?” she asked.
“How can the UN pay this man who dragged my son’s slim body on the ground and then picked him as if he was a prize to Gaza?“
Israel last week gave more details about the UNRWA staff members that it alleges were involved in the Hamas attack.
The man said to be in the video — identified as 45-year-old Faisal Ali Mussalem Al-Naami — was described as a social worker for UNRWA but was allegedly also a Hamas commando.
He “was involved in kidnapping a soldier from Beeri (and) coordinated the transfer of weapons and trucks,” the government said.
Others accused of involvement were said to be teachers or other staff members in UNRWA-run schools and health clinics.
Shelly Aviv Yeini, head of the legal team at the Hostages and Missing Families Forum, said the campaign group wanted “a comprehensive and transparent” probe into the claims.
“We seek assurances that the principle of neutrality, so vital to the UN’s mission, is not just upheld, but is actively protected,” she added.
UNRWA provides education and primary health care to Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, employing some 30,000 people.
Israel’s initial allegations against UNRWA saw the agency sack all those accused of involvement in the attack, in a bid to protect its wider reputation.
Two separate investigations — one into the collaboration claims, the second about UNRWA’s wider political neutrality — are underway and due to report within weeks.
But since then, Israel has claimed Hamas tunnels were found directly under UNRWA’s Gaza City headquarters, which it was forced to abandon as bombardments intensified in the Palestinian territory.


Hunger grips Gaza as talks resume in Cairo

Hunger grips Gaza as talks resume in Cairo
Updated 21 February 2024
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Hunger grips Gaza as talks resume in Cairo

Hunger grips Gaza as talks resume in Cairo

GAZA STRIP: Heavy fighting rocked besieged Gaza on Wednesday as aid agencies warned of looming famine and new talks were held in Cairo toward an Israel-Hamas ceasefire and hostage release deal.

The White House sent Middle East envoy Brett McGurk for renewed talks involving mediators and Hamas, a day after a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire was blocked by the US.

The UN World Food Programme said it was forced to halt aid deliveries in north Gaza because of “complete chaos and violence” after a truck convoy encountered gunfire and was ransacked by looters. Hamas called the move a “death sentence.”

Colombian President Gustavo Petro accused Israel of “genocide” after Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva had compared the Gaza campaign to the Holocaust.

In Syria, state television said an Israeli missile strike killed at least two people in Damascus, a claim Israel refused to comment on.

Violence has also flared in the occupied West Bank where the Israeli army said its troops killed three Palestinian militants during an overnight raid in the northern city of Jenin.


UK and Jordan air drop aid to hospital in northern Gaza

UK and Jordan air drop aid to hospital in northern Gaza
Updated 21 February 2024
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UK and Jordan air drop aid to hospital in northern Gaza

UK and Jordan air drop aid to hospital in northern Gaza
  • The UK-funded aid was delivered by the Jordanian Air Force

LONDON: Britain and Jordan have air-dropped four tons of aid including medicines, fuel and food to Tal Al-Hawa Hospital in northern Gaza, Britain’s Foreign Office said on Wednesday.
The UK-funded aid was delivered by the Jordanian Air Force.
“Thousands of patients will benefit and the fuel will enable this vital hospital to continue its life-saving work,” British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said in a statement.
“However, the situation in Gaza is desperate and significantly more aid is needed, and fast. We are calling for an immediate humanitarian pause to allow additional aid into Gaza as quickly as possible and bring hostages home.”