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.”


Dubai carrier Emirates suspends check-in for onward connections, flydubai cancels Iran flights

Dubai carrier Emirates suspends check-in for onward connections, flydubai cancels Iran flights
Updated 20 min 12 sec ago
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Dubai carrier Emirates suspends check-in for onward connections, flydubai cancels Iran flights

Dubai carrier Emirates suspends check-in for onward connections, flydubai cancels Iran flights
  • Emirates suspends check-in for all customers in its network travelling with onward connections through Dubai

DUBAI: Dubai’s flydubai airline canceled flights to Iran on Friday after receiving an official alert, a statement said.

“In line with the issued NOTAM (notice to air missions), our flights to Iran today have been canceled,” said the statement

One flight which had already departed for Tehran returned to Dubai after the Iranian capital’s airport was closed, it added.

Flights were suspended across swathes of Iran as Iranian state media reported explosions in the central province of Isfahan.

Flight-tracking software showed commercial flights avoiding western Iran, including Isfahan, and skirting Tehran to the north and east.

Emirates meanwhile said on Friday it was suspending check-in for all customers in its network travelling with onward connections through Dubai until 2359 GMT on April 19.

Emirates, one of the world’s biggest international airlines, added that customers travelling to Dubai as their final destination may check-in and travel as usual.

Emirates and flydubai have experienced serious disruption this week after record rainfall caused more than 1,000 flight cancelations at Dubai airport, one of the world’s busiest air hubs.


Iran closes air space, commercial flights diverted after apparent Israeli retaliatory strikes

Iran closes air space, commercial flights diverted after apparent Israeli retaliatory strikes
Updated 19 April 2024
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Iran closes air space, commercial flights diverted after apparent Israeli retaliatory strikes

Iran closes air space, commercial flights diverted after apparent Israeli retaliatory strikes
  • Drones shot down over Isfahan, says Iranian state media
  • Israel military refuses to comment on incident

DUBAI/WASHINGTON: Israeli missiles have hit a site in Iran, ABC News reported late on Thursday, citing a US official, while Iranian state media reported an explosion in the center of the country, days after Iran launched a retaliatory drone strike on Israel.

Commercial flights began diverting their routes early Friday morning over western Iran without explanation as one semiofficial news agency in the Islamic Republic claimed there had been “explosions” heard over the city of Isfahan.

Some Emirates and Flydubai flights that were flying over Iran early on Friday made sudden sharp turns away from the airspace, according to flight paths shown on tracking website Flightradar24.

“Flights over Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran cities have been suspended,” state media reported.

Iranian officials said its air defenses did shot down several drones but there had been “no missile attack for now” on the country.

The state-run IRNA news agency reported that Iran fired air defense batteries early Friday morning across several provinces after reports of explosions near the city of Isfahan.

Several drones “have been successfully shot down by the country’s air defense, there are no reports of a missile attack for now,” Iran’s space agency spokesman Hossein Dalirian says on X.

The Fars news agency said “three explosions” were heard near the Shekari army airbase near Isfahan.

Iran’s local media also reported that nuclear facilities in Isfahan were “completely secure” after explosions were heard near the area.

“Nuclear facilities in Isfahan province are completely secure,” Tasnim news agency reports, quoting “reliable sources.”

Israel had said it would retaliate against Iran’s weekend attack, which involved hundreds of drones and missiles in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on its embassy compound in Syria. Most of the Iranian drones and missiles were downed before reaching Israeli territory.

Several Iranian nuclear sites are located in Isfahan province, including Natanz, centerpiece of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Isfahan, Isome 350 kilometers (215 miles) south of Iran’s capital, Tehran, is also home to a major air base for the Iranian military.

Meanwhile in Iraq where a number of Iranian-backed militias are based, residents in Baghdad reported hearing sounds of explosions, but the source of the noise was not immediately clear.

In Syria, a local activist group said strikes hit an army position in the south of the country Friday. 

“There were strikes on a Syrian army radar position,” said Rayan Maarouf, who runs the Suwayda24 anti-government website that covers news from Sweida province in the south.

Iranian military positions in Syria had been frequently targetted by Israeli air strikes over the past years. Early this month, an Israeli strike demolished a consular building annex of the Iranian Embassy in Sydia's capital Damascus, killing 13 people, including two generals of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, triggering the Iranian missiles and drones attack on Israel on April 13.

At the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Iran urged member nations that Israel “must be compelled to stop any further military adventurism against our interests” as the UN secretary-general warned that the Middle East was in a “moment of maximum peril.”

Israel had said it was going to retaliate against Iran’s April 13 missile and drone attack.

Analysts and observers have been raising concerns about the risks of the Israel-Gaza war spreading into the rest of the region.

Oil prices and jumped on the reports of the Israeli strike. Brent crude futures rose 2 percent to $88.86 a barrel, the dollar gained broadly, gold rose 1 percent and S&P 500 futures dropped 1 percent.

Israel’s assault on Gaza began after Palestinian Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s military offensive has killed over 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the local health ministry.
Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, launching attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.


United States had advance warning of Israel attack on Iran: US media

United States had advance warning of Israel attack on Iran: US media
Updated 31 min 46 sec ago
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United States had advance warning of Israel attack on Iran: US media

United States had advance warning of Israel attack on Iran: US media
  • US media: Israel had provided Washington with pre-notification of the strike
  • Tehran’s two major airports resumed flights following a brief suspension

DUBAI/WASHINGTON/TEHRAN: The United States received advance notice of Israel’s reported strike on Iran but did not endorse the operation or play any part in its execution, US media quoted officials as saying.

NBC and CNN, citing sources familiar with the matter and a US official, respectively, said Israel had provided Washington with pre-notification of the strike.

Various networks cited officials confirming a strike had taken place inside Iran, with CNN quoting one official as stating the target was not a nuclear facility.

Israel told the United States on Thursday it would be retaliating against Iran in the coming days, a senior US official told CNN.

“We didn’t endorse the response,” the official said, according to CNN.

There was no immediate comment from the White House about the Israeli strike.

In response to a query from AFP, the Pentagon duty desk said: “We do not have anything to offer at this time.”

Iran activated its air defense system over several cities, state media reported, after the country’s official broadcaster said explosions were heard near the central city of Isfahan.

Israel warned it would hit back after Iran fired hundreds of missiles and drones at its arch-foe over the weekend. Most of them were intercepted.

That weekend barrage came in the wake of an attack on Iran’s consulate in Damascus widely blamed on Israel.

Tehran’s two major airports resumed flights on Friday, state media reported, following a brief suspension after explosions were heard in central Iran.

“Flights through Imam Khomeini and Mehrabad airports have resumed,” the official IRNA news agency reported.

Commercial flights began diverting their routes early Friday morning over western Iran without explanation as one semiofficial news agency in the Islamic Republic claimed there had been “explosions” heard over the city of Isfahan.

Some Emirates and Flydubai flights that were flying over Iran early on Friday made sudden sharp turns away from the airspace, according to flight paths shown on tracking website Flightradar24.

“Flights over Isfahan, Shiraz and Tehran cities have been suspended,” state media reported.

Iranian officials said its air defenses did shot down several drones but there had been “no missile attack for now” on the country.

The state-run IRNA news agency reported that Iran fired air defense batteries early Friday morning across several provinces after reports of explosions near the city of Isfahan.

Several drones “have been successfully shot down by the country’s air defense, there are no reports of a missile attack for now,” Iran’s space agency spokesman Hossein Dalirian says on X.

The Fars news agency said “three explosions” were heard near the Shekari army airbase near Isfahan.

Iran’s local media also reported that nuclear facilities in Isfahan were “completely secure” after explosions were heard near the area.

“Nuclear facilities in Isfahan province are completely secure,” Tasnim news agency reports, quoting “reliable sources.”

Israel had said it would retaliate against Iran’s weekend attack, which involved hundreds of drones and missiles in retaliation for a suspected Israeli strike on its embassy compound in Syria. Most of the Iranian drones and missiles were downed before reaching Israeli territory.

Several Iranian nuclear sites are located in Isfahan province, including Natanz, centerpiece of Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Isfahan, Isome 350 kilometers (215 miles) south of Iran’s capital, Tehran, is also home to a major air base for the Iranian military.


Meanwhile in Iraq where a number of Iranian-backed militias are based, residents in Baghdad reported hearing sounds of explosions, but the source of the noise was not immediately clear.

In Syria, a local activist group said strikes hit an army position in the south of the country Friday. 

“There were strikes on a Syrian army radar position,” said Rayan Maarouf, who runs the Suwayda24 anti-government website that covers news from Sweida province in the south.

Iranian military positions in Syria had been frequently targetted by Israeli air strikes over the past years. Early this month, an Israeli strike demolished a consular building annex of the Iranian Embassy in Sydia's capital Damascus, killing 13 people, including two generals of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, triggering the Iranian missiles and drones attack on Israel on April 13.

At the United Nations Security Council on Thursday, Iran urged member nations that Israel “must be compelled to stop any further military adventurism against our interests” as the UN secretary-general warned that the Middle East was in a “moment of maximum peril.”

 

Israel had said it was going to retaliate against Iran’s April 13 missile and drone attack.

Analysts and observers have been raising concerns about the risks of the Israel-Gaza war spreading into the rest of the region.

Oil prices and jumped on the reports of the Israeli strike. Brent crude futures rose 2 percent to $88.86 a barrel, the dollar gained broadly, gold rose 1 percent and S&P 500 futures dropped 1 percent.

Israel’s assault on Gaza began after Palestinian Islamist group Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200, according to Israeli tallies.

Israel’s military offensive has killed over 33,000 Palestinians in Gaza, according to the local health ministry.

Iran-backed groups have declared support for Palestinians, launching attacks from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq.


Hamas slams US veto of Palestinian UN membership bid

Hamas slams US veto of Palestinian UN membership bid
Updated 19 April 2024
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Hamas slams US veto of Palestinian UN membership bid

Hamas slams US veto of Palestinian UN membership bid

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES: Palestinian militant group Hamas condemned on Friday the US veto that ended a long-shot Palestinian bid for full United Nations membership.
“Hamas condemns the American veto at the Security Council of the draft resolution granting Palestine full membership in the United Nations,” the Gaza Strip rulers said in a statement, which comes amid growing international concern over the toll inflicted by the war in the besieged Palestinian territory.
The veto by Israel’s main ally and military backer had been expected ahead of the vote, which took place more than six months into Israel’s offensive in Gaza, in retaliation for the deadly October 7 attack by Hamas militants.
Twelve countries voted in favor of the draft resolution, which was introduced by Algeria and “recommends to the General Assembly that the State of Palestine be admitted to membership of the United Nations.” Britain and Switzerland abstained.


Gazans search for remains after deadly Rafah strike

Gazans search for remains after deadly Rafah strike
Updated 36 min 27 sec ago
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Gazans search for remains after deadly Rafah strike

Gazans search for remains after deadly Rafah strike
  • ‘We retrieved the remains of children and women, finding arms and feet. They were all torn to pieces’

An Israeli strike hit the home where a displaced Palestinian family was sheltering in the southern city of Rafah, relatives and neighbors said as they scraped at the soil with their hands.

Al-Arja said the blast killed at least 10 people.

“We retrieved the remains of children and women, finding arms and feet. They were all torn to pieces.

“This is horrifying. It’s not normal,” he said, hauling concrete and broken olive branches from the wreckage. “The entire world is complicit.”

Soon after the war began on Oct. 7, Israel told Palestinians living in the north of Gaza to move to “safe zones” in the territory’s south, like Rafah.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has since vowed to invade the city, where around 1.5 million people live in shelters, more than half the territory’s population.

“How is Rafah a safe place?” said Zeyad Ayyad, a relative of the victims. He sighed as he cradled a fragment of the remains.

“I heard the bombing last night and then went back to sleep. I did not think it hit my aunt’s house.”

The search for remains was long and painful. The strike left a huge crater and children picked through the rubble while neighbors removed debris, tarpaulin, a pink top.

“We can see them under the rubble and we’re unable to retrieve them,” Al-Arja said. 

“These are people who came from the north because it was said the south is safe.”

“They struck without any warning,” he said.

In a separate strike on the house in Rafah’s Al-Salam neighborhood overnight on Tuesday, rescue crews recovered the corpses of eight family members, including five children and two women, Gaza’s civil defense service said.

“An Israeli rocket hit a house of displaced people,” said resident Sami Nyrab. 

“My sister’s son-in-law, her daughter, and her children were having dinner when an Israeli missile demolished their house over their heads.”