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.”


Israel on board with Gaza peace deal, as US airdrops begin

Israel on board with Gaza peace deal, as US airdrops begin
Updated 03 March 2024
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Israel on board with Gaza peace deal, as US airdrops begin

Israel on board with Gaza peace deal, as US airdrops begin
  • International mediators have been working for weeks to broker a deal to pause fighting
  • Ball is in Hamas’ camp now, says senior US administration official on Gaza peace deal

WASHINGTON DC: Israel has broadly accepted a ceasefire deal with Hamas, a senior US official said Saturday, as the first American air drops of humanitarian aid were carried out over war-ravaged Gaza.
The framework agreement envisages a six-week cessation of hostilities, which could begin immediately if the Palestinian militant group signs off on the release of the most vulnerable hostages it holds, the official told reporters on a call.
“The Israelis have more or less accepted it,” the administration official said. “Right now, the ball is in the camp of Hamas.”
The announcement came hours after US military cargo planes began airdropping humanitarian aid into the besieged Gaza Strip.
The United Nations has warned of famine in Gaza, and more than 100 people were left dead earlier this week in a frenzied scramble for food from a truck convoy delivering aid, with Israeli forces opening fire on the crowd.
Saturday’s drop, which included 38,000 meals, was conducted “to provide essential relief to civilians affected by the ongoing conflict,” the US Central Command said.
A CENTCOM official told AFP that the meals were made up of US military rations that did not contain pork, the consumption of which is prohibited by Islam.
Negotiators from regional powers have been working around the clock to secure a Gaza truce by the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in about one week.
“It will be a six-week ceasefire in Gaza starting today if Hamas agrees to release the defined category of vulnerable hostages... the sick, the wounded, elderly and women,” the administration official said.
Hamas militants took about 250 hostages during their unprecedented cross-border attack on Israel on October 7, 130 of whom remain in Gaza, including 31 that Israel says are presumed dead. It was unclear how many of the remaining hostages are deemed vulnerable.
The United States hopes any truce would create space for a more enduring peace. A Hamas delegation was expected to fly to Cairo on Saturday for talks on a truce, a source close to the group told AFP.
The administration official said a ceasefire would also allow a “significant surge” in humanitarian aid to Gaza, with airdrops not seen as a replacement for full-scale relief convoys.
“None of these — maritime corridors, airdrops — are an alternative to the fundamental need to move assistance through as many land crossings as possible. That’s the most efficient way to get aid in at scale,” a second US official told reporters.
The brutal October 7 attack by Hamas resulted in the deaths of around 1,160 people, according to official figures.
Israel responded with a relentless assault on Hamas-controlled Gaza that has taken a devastating toll on civilians trapped there, killing more than 30,000 people, according to the territory’s health ministry.
The amount of aid brought into Gaza by truck has plummeted during nearly five months of war, and Gazans are facing dire shortages of food, water and medicines.
Some foreign militaries have airdropped supplies to Gaza, sending long lines of aid pallets floating down into the war-torn territory on parachutes.
Jordan has been conducting many of the operations with the support of countries including Britain, France and the Netherlands, while Egypt sent several military planes on an air drop Thursday together with the United Arab Emirates.
Biden has pushed Israel to reduce civilian casualties and allow aid in, while at the same time he has maintained military assistance for the key US ally.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby described the airdrops as a “tough military operation” that required careful planning by the Pentagon for the safety of both Gazan civilians and US military personnel.


Palestinian Scout Association members volunteer to assist the displaced in war-ravaged Gaza

Palestinian Scout Association members volunteer to assist the displaced in war-ravaged Gaza
Updated 03 March 2024
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Palestinian Scout Association members volunteer to assist the displaced in war-ravaged Gaza

Palestinian Scout Association members volunteer to assist the displaced in war-ravaged Gaza
  • PSA stepped in and commissioned tens of its members as volunteers to support and assist people cope with life in the wild nature and makeshift shelters
  • “We as PSA members have a duty and obligation towards the people of Gaza. We are committed to supporting them as much as possible,” scout leader Sahar Abu-Zaid tells Arab News

BEIRUT: Over 150 scout members of the Palestinian Scout Association have been risking their own lives and volunteering to aid and support children, women and displaced families in war-ravaged Gaza.

Basic life necessities such as food, water, homes, electricity, healthcare, education and others have vanished since Israel launched its unprecedented war against Gaza following the Hamas Oct. 7 attacks.

As nearly 2 million Gazans were displaced and took refuge at shelters and makeshift tents not being able to eat, drink, wash, sleep and live normally, that was when the Palestinian Scout Association stepped in and commissioned tens of its members as volunteers to support and assist people cope with life in the wild nature and makeshift shelters.

One of those PSA members is scout group leader Sahar Jamal Abu-Zaid who along tens of her fellow scout-mates put their own lives at risk and rush to ‘help and support displaced people and traumatized kids because it is our duty and obligation to do so’.

Palestinian Scout Association leader Sahar Abu-Zaid during a group session activity with women of Gaza inside a classroom at one of the shelters. (Supplied)

Describing the situation from Gaza as ‘difficult, disastrous and extremely dangerous’ she told Arab News on Saturday: “We as PSA members have a duty and obligation towards the people of Gaza … our people! We are committed to supporting them as much as possible, despite the deep wounds and scars that the war has inflicted on them.”

A scout is an expert in wildlife and knows, according to Abu-Zaid, how to survive in outside nature while dealing with tents, wood, fireplaces, ropes and cooking.

“We have been helping the displaced people through applying our scouting skills by teaching them how to use ropes to make laundry lines, setting up tents for sleeping, making fireplaces to stay warm and building makeshift ovens to cook as well,” she elaborated.

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They have also been volunteering with Sharek Youth Forum (SYF), an NGO that operates in Gaza and the West Bank, through providing psychological support to disturbed children and troubled adults who were displaced from their homes and took refuge at different shelters.

She also revealed that scout volunteers are managing a major kitchen in cooperation with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit NGO devoted to providing meals in the wake of natural disasters.

“Scout members are cooking huge meals, as they used to do in camps. We package the food meals and distribute them. We also have a bread project, whereby we bake bread on woodfire and distribute them along with the meals. So far we have been able to provide over 10,000 meals,” Abu-Zaid told the newspaper.

As part of the efforts of Qatar’s Education Above All Foundation and the United Nations Population Fund in responding to the Gaza crisis, scout members have also been volunteering in different support activities and programs provided to assist the refugees, especially children.

Palestinian Scout Association volunteers during a clean up campaign in a Gaza makeshift camp for refugees. (Supplied)

There are more than 150 PSA members volunteering, working nonstop and exerting ‘extraordinarily tremendous efforts’ [amid a life-threatening and hazardous situation] to assist refugees, the displaced, women, children and elderlies across all parts of Gaza, she said.

The 31-year-old accounting graduate said she and all her fellow scout-mates participate in a campaign titled ‘Participate with your People’ that was launched by SYF and aims at organising individual and group activities for children and supporting women and parents in how to identify and manage children’s trauma symptoms.

Driven by the curiosity to learn about scouting life and the aim to develop new life-skills and enjoying wildlife and outside activities, Abu-Zaid joined PSA in 2017 at the age of 25.

“Today, we are living minute by minute, and we are at risk of getting killed by an Israeli airstrike at any moment. Yet, we have to keep moving forward … we are committed to drawing smiles on the faces of traumatized children by involving them in different fun activities and games that we learnt at scouts. We are also involving grownups, mainly women, in group discussions and other activities that could help them learn how to survive amid this warzone,” she said.

alestinian Scout Association volunteers teaching refugees how to build up laundry lines at a makeshift camp in Gaza. (Supplied)

An accounting graduate, Abu-Zaid called on for an immediate ceasefire saying: “It is only an immediate ceasefire that would save our lives. We are surrounded by nonstop massacres … the latest was that of Al-Rasheed streets when 10s were killed by Israeli fire while waiting to collect aid materials and food support. People die every minute and this has got to stop instantly with an instant ceasefire.”  

In a news report published in the Guardian earlier this week, Mai al-Afifi, a volunteer herself displaced from Gaza City to Deir al-Balah, was quoted as saying: “We do see the games and singing make a difference … for just a little while, the children can relieve their psychological stress.”

Nader al-Raqab, PSA’s leader in Khan Younis, was apprehended by Israelis a few weeks back and has not been heard from since.


Houthi leader says UK’s Sunak has chance to recover Rubymar by letting aid into Gaza

This satellite image taken by Maxar Technologies shows the Belize-flagged ship Rubymar in the Red Sea on Friday, March 1, 2024.
This satellite image taken by Maxar Technologies shows the Belize-flagged ship Rubymar in the Red Sea on Friday, March 1, 2024.
Updated 03 March 2024
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Houthi leader says UK’s Sunak has chance to recover Rubymar by letting aid into Gaza

This satellite image taken by Maxar Technologies shows the Belize-flagged ship Rubymar in the Red Sea on Friday, March 1, 2024.
  • The Houthis insist their attacks will continue until Israel stops its combat operations in the Gaza Strip, which have enraged the wider Arab world and seen the Houthis gain international recognition

CAIRO: A senior Houthi leader said on Saturday he held British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government responsible for the sinking of the UK-owned Rubymar.
Mohammed Ali Al-Houthi, head of Yemen’s Houthi supreme revolutionary committee, also said on X: “Sunak has a chance to recover the Rubymar by allowing aid trucks into Gaza.”
Yemen’s internationally recognized government said earlier on Saturday that the Rubymar, which was attacked by Houthi militants last month, had sunk in the Red Sea and warned of an “environmental catastrophe” from the ship’s cargo of fertilizer.

 


Tunisian authorities investigate a fire at a synagogue, question a suspect in custody

Tunisian forces secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shootout on the resort island of Djerba on May 10, 2023.
Tunisian forces secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shootout on the resort island of Djerba on May 10, 2023.
Updated 03 March 2024
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Tunisian authorities investigate a fire at a synagogue, question a suspect in custody

Tunisian forces secure an area near the Ghriba synagogue following a shootout on the resort island of Djerba on May 10, 2023.
  • In May, five people were killed in a shooting attack on the historic Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia’s island of Djerba

TUNIS, Tunisia: A man believed to have started a fire in a garden at a synagogue in the east of Tunisia is in custody and under investigation for targeting a Jewish house of worship, officials said Saturday.
Hichem ben Ayad, the public prosecutor in the eastern port city of Sfax, told The Associated Press that a garden in the courtyard of the city’s synagogue was set on fire last Sunday. An investigation was opened and a suspect was arrested, he said.
The suspect is a public official his late 40s, ben Ayad said. He is being questioned to establish if the fire — which the prosecutor said was “a criminal act” — was premediated and deliberately targeted the Jewish house of worship.
There were no casualties in the fire that was extinguished the same day, ben Ayad said. He added that the blaze did not cause significant damage to the building. The synagogue appeared to be empty at the time, he said.
In May, five people were killed in a shooting attack on the historic Ghriba synagogue on Tunisia’s island of Djerba. Authorities said a Tunisian national guardsman was behind the attack.
The assailant intentionally targeted the ancient synagogue on the Mediterranean island in a premeditated act, Tunisian officials said.

 


Kuwait calls on voters to elect members of the national assembly on April 4

Kuwait calls on voters to elect members of the national assembly on April 4
Updated 03 March 2024
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Kuwait calls on voters to elect members of the national assembly on April 4

Kuwait calls on voters to elect members of the national assembly on April 4
  • Last month, Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah issued a decree to dissolve parliament

KUWAIT CITY: Kuwait called on Saturday for voters to elect members of the national assembly on April 4, Kuwait News Agency said.

On Wednesday, government spokesman Amer Al-Ajmi said the Kuwaiti Cabinet had approved a draft emiri decree inviting voters to elect the National Assembly and added that registration of candidates would begin on March 4.

Last month, Kuwait’s Emir Sheikh Meshal Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah issued a decree to dissolve the parliament.

The decree was based on the national assembly’s “violation of the constitutional principles,” KUNA added.

The assembly was elected in June 2023 following a proposal by the prime minister that was approved by the cabinet.