Israel-Hamas war in Gaza takes heavy toll on Palestinian cultural heritage

Special Smoke rises over Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from southern Israel. (AFP)
Smoke rises over Gaza, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, as seen from southern Israel. (AFP)
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Updated 10 December 2023
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Israel-Hamas war in Gaza takes heavy toll on Palestinian cultural heritage

Israel-Hamas war in Gaza takes heavy toll on Palestinian cultural heritage
  • Libraries, archives, parks and museums damaged or destroyed by weeks of Israeli bombardment of occupied enclave
  • Gaza Municipal Library and Rashad Al-Shawa Cultural Center among many landmarks wrecked by two-month-old conflict

RIYADH: Since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, Israel’s war with the militant Palestinian group has wreaked unprecedented havoc on the Gaza Strip, demolishing entire neighborhoods and displacing more than a million people.

While the tragic loss of life is understandably being deplored in the strongest possible terms, people are not the only casualties. Cultural treasures — including libraries, art galleries and historical artifacts — are also being destroyed, meaning institutions that have offered Gaza’s civilian population respite from the trauma of occupation are being lost to the world.

In hindsight, some regional conflicts, in Mosul and Raqqa for instance, have been followed by the rebuilding of creative spaces and cultural institutions. But while the conflict in Gaza continues, and in some places intensifies, most cultural practitioners there are simply trying to survive.

The war has already claimed the lives of Palestinian intellectuals: Refaat Alareer, a 44-year-old Palestinian poet and University of Gaza professor, for example, was killed in an Israeli airstrike on Dec. 7.

“I am still alive, but without life,” one Gaza-based artist told Arab News on condition of anonymity.




Photos show the Omari Mosque, the oldest and biggest in Gaza, before and after it suffered damage, in the course of the Israel-Hamas war. (Social media)

“The situation is very, very difficult and terrifying. There was no simple food or drinking water available. We die slowly.” Several other artists and cultural practitioners Arab News tried to reach were unable to respond either due to poor network connection or for fear of their safety.

Israel says 1,200 people were killed and 240 taken hostage in the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. A number of hostages were later released during a humanitarian pause. Health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza say Israel has killed more than 17,177 people in its retaliatory campaign, including about 7,000 children.

As of Saturday, Israeli troops and Hamas militants remained locked in deadly combat for control of Khan Younis, Gaza’s second-biggest city, with Palestinian civilians reportedly facing increasing difficulty in finding shelter and access to humanitarian aid.

Both the Gaza Municipal Library and the Rashad Al-Shawa Cultural Center — the latter was the site of a meeting between then-US President Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat 25 years ago — have been wrecked by shelling and firefights after nearly two months of war.

Israeli aircraft “targeted and turned the public library building into rubble and destroyed thousands of books, titles and documents recording the city’s history and development, as well as the destruction of the library’s language courses hall and other library facilities,” a Nov. 27 statement from Gaza Municipality read, also noting the destruction of the cultural center and the municipal printing press.




Objects damaged Al-Qarara Cultural Museum in Gaza. Founder and Director Mohammed Abu Leila said: “The museum was destroyed by the explosions nearby. Glass and Roman bottles, the facade of the building, as well as its doors and windows, were destroyed, and the ceilings were cracked. I am concerned about the museum and the collections.” (Supplied)

Fida Touma, director-general of the Ramallah-based A.M. Qattan Foundation, which supports the preservation of arts in Palestine and the Arab world, told Arab News that “there are no official listings of monuments/culture centers, as shelling has not stopped, and communications are cut.”

The International Council on Monuments and Sites stated on Facebook: “It is not possible to accurately determine or describe all damage. Homes, schools, hospitals, religious buildings, universities, museums, farm lands and other facilities have been destroyed. In addition to these acts of genocide, Israeli Minister of Heritage Amihai Ben-Eliyahu has publicly called for a nuclear bombing against Gaza.

“ICOMOS Palestine published a statement on Nov. 7 denouncing this statement. The Israelis used most of the weapons and war methods prohibited by the Geneva Convention and all relevant conventions. Their aim is to eradicate life in Gaza, as well as its heritage, history, memories and archives. Israel is ethnic cleansing the Palestinian people physically and erasing its history and memory.”

FASTFACTS

* Expansion of war in southern Gaza follows initial Israeli bombardment of areas in the north, including Gaza City.

* With Mediterranean Sea to the west, closed borders with Egypt and Israel to the south and east, space for people to go to is shrinking.

More than 100 cultural institutions in Gaza have been damaged as a result of the Israeli military offensive, according to a recent survey by the group Heritage for Peace. They include the Church of Saint Porphyrius, thought to be the third-oldest church in the world.

The Palestine Ministry of Culture had listed a number of sites in Arabic that it says are known to be destroyed or damaged. These include multiple educational and cultural centers, at least three public libraries and archives, Al-Zawiya market, the centuries-old Great Mosque of Gaza, and two museums.




Photos of the Rashad Al-Shawa Cultural Center, before and after they suffered damage, in the course of the Israel-Hamas war. (Social media)

Al-Qarara Cultural Museum founder and director Mohammed Abu Leila, who fled with his family to Rafah near the Egyptian border, described via WhatsApp how “we left the museum and migrated.”

He said: “There was heavy shelling and terrifying bombing after (midnight) until dawn. We saw death coming, with fear, horror, and pain. In the morning, we left the village and fled to the city of Khan Younis with my family, sister and wife.  Then we fled to the city of Rafah.”

Abu Leila said the museum’s collection of 5,000 pieces, spread across the outer yard, the ground floor and the first floor, includes stones, pottery, coins, documents, dresses, agricultural tools, and women’s ornaments.

“The museum was destroyed by the explosions nearby,” he told Arab News. “Glass and Roman bottles, the facade of the building, as well as its doors and windows, were destroyed, and the ceilings were cracked. I am concerned about the museum and the collections. I can feel it is in great danger.”

Some members of the Palestinian diaspora in North America are nevertheless trying to find ways to preserve Gaza’s culture and support artists from afar.




Seen here in a photo from the 1920s, the Church of Saint Porphyrius, above, is one of many cultural landmarks damaged by the war between Israel and Hamas. (Father Savignac/Ecole Biblique, Jerusalem/AFP)

On Nov. 21, the Palestine Museum in the US announced loan opportunities for original works by eight Gaza-based artists, saying in a statement: “This unique initiative aims to showcase the talent and creativity of Palestinian artists, while fostering cultural exchange and dialogue.”

The program also includes around 200 drawings created by children from Gaza, which explore “identity, resilience, resistance and hope” and “offer a unique glimpse into the world of Gaza’s children and their artistic expressions.”

Faisal Saleh, the museum’s founder and director, said that funds generated can help alleviate the desperate circumstances faced by many of Gaza’s artists, enabling them to sustain their creative practices.

“In the face of the devastating Israeli bombing campaign and the impact it has had on Gaza’s civilian infrastructure and population, it is vital that we stand in solidarity with Gaza artists and provide them with platforms to showcase their incredible talent,” Saleh told Arab News.




French archaeologists at a French Palestinian archaeological storage site in Gaza City. (File photo by Fadel Al-Utol)

“Art has a unique power to transcend borders and ignite empathy and understanding, and we believe that by amplifying the voices of Gaza artists, we can contribute to a broader dialogue and raise awareness about the situation on the ground in Gaza.

“We call upon museums and art institutions worldwide to join us in supporting Gaza artists by participating in our art loan program and providing opportunities for their work to be showcased and appreciated,” he continued. “Together, we can use the transformative power of art to create meaningful change and rebuild a brighter future for Gaza’s artistic community.”

While outside efforts offer some hope of keeping Palestinian art — whether ancient, modern or contemporary — alive, the war is taking a tragic toll.

As another artist in Gaza told Arab News on condition of anonymity, “We are simply trying to survive. We have no food, no water, no art right now.”

 


Hezbollah fires new rocket salvo at Israeli base

Hezbollah fires new rocket salvo at Israeli base
Updated 57 min 50 sec ago
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Hezbollah fires new rocket salvo at Israeli base

Hezbollah fires new rocket salvo at Israeli base
  • The rocket fire was in response to Israel’s first strikes of the war on eastern Lebanon

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Iran-backed militant group Hezbollah said it launched a salvo of rockets at an Israeli air control base on Tuesday in retaliation for deadly Israeli strikes on east Lebanon.
Hamas ally Hezbollah has exchanged near-daily fire with the Israeli army since the Gaza war erupted in October, but strikes have been largely restricted to the border area.
Hezbollah said it targeted the “Meron air control base... with a large salvo of rockets from several launchers.”
It said the rocket fire was in response to Israel’s first strikes of the war on eastern Lebanon.
Israel struck Hezbollah targets near the city of Baalbek, killing two of its fighters, security sources said. The Israeli army said it targeted Hezbollah air defenses after the group downed one of its drones.
In retaliation, Hezbollah already fired 60 rockets at an Israeli base in the annexed Golah Heights on Monday.
Cross-border exchanges since October have killed at least 284 people on the Lebanese side, most of them Hezbollah fighters but also including 44 civilians, according to an AFP tally.
On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and six civilians have been killed, according to the Israeli army.


Israeli team in Qatar in last push for Gaza peace deal

Israeli team in Qatar in last push for Gaza peace deal
Updated 47 min 30 sec ago
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Israeli team in Qatar in last push for Gaza peace deal

Israeli team in Qatar in last push for Gaza peace deal
  • Israel is under pressure from the US to agree on a truce

JEDDAH: A high-level Israeli delegation arrived on Monday in Qatar, where political leaders of Hamas are based, as the combatants in the Gaza war closed in on a ceasefire and hostage deal that the US says is now within reach.
The presence of both sides suggested talks were further along than at any time since a big push at the start of February, when Israel rejected a Hamas proposal as “delusional.”
In public, both sides continue to blame each other. Israel says it will agree only to a temporary pause in fighting to secure the release of hostages. Hamas says it will not free them without a permanent end to the war.
After meeting Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said the group had embraced mediators’ efforts to find an end to the war, and accused Israel of stalling while Gazans die under siege. “We will not allow the enemy to use negotiations as a cover for this crime,” he said.
Senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri said any ceasefire agreement would require “securing an end to the aggression, the withdrawal of the occupation, the returning of the displaced, the entry of aid, shelter equipment, and rebuilding.”
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was ready for a deal, and it was up to Hamas to drop demands he described as “outlandish” and “from another planet.”
Israel is under pressure from the US to agree on a truce to prevent a threatened assault on Rafah in southern Gaza.


Israeli forces kill three Palestinians in West Bank clashes, WAFA says

Israeli forces kill three Palestinians in West Bank clashes, WAFA says
Updated 27 February 2024
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Israeli forces kill three Palestinians in West Bank clashes, WAFA says

Israeli forces kill three Palestinians in West Bank clashes, WAFA says

CAIRO: Three Palestinians were killed by Israeli forces in clashes in the occupied West Bank early on Tuesday, the official Palestinian news agency WAFA said.
At least 400 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli soldiers and settlers since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas gunmen.


At least 10 killed after ferry sinks in Egypt’s Nile

At least 10 killed after ferry sinks in Egypt’s Nile
Updated 27 February 2024
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At least 10 killed after ferry sinks in Egypt’s Nile

At least 10 killed after ferry sinks in Egypt’s Nile
  • Many Egyptians make their way using boats on a daily basis, especially in Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta

CAIRO: A ferry carrying day laborers sank in the Nile just outside the Egyptian capital, killing at least 10 of the 15 people on board, authorities said Monday.
The five who survived were transported to a hospital and later discharged, the Ministry of Manpower said in a statement. The cause of the sinking was not made immediately clear.
The ministry allocated compensation of 200,000 Egyptian pounds (around $6,466) to each family of the deceased and 20,000 ($646) to each of the five injured.
The laborers were on their way to work at a local construction firm. It took rescue teams hours to recover the bodies, according to local media which aired live-stream videos on social media platforms showing divers searching for the dead as villagers waited on the Nile banks.
The incident took place in the town of Monshat el-Kanater in Giza, which is one of three provinces forming Greater Cairo.
Many Egyptians make their way using boats on a daily basis, especially in Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta. Sailing along the Nile is also a favorite pastime during holidays in the Arab world’s most populous country.
Ferry, railway and road accidents are common in Egypt mainly because of poor maintenance and the lack of regulations.
In 2022, two people died and eight went missing after a small truck they were riding in slid off a ferry and plunged into the Nile. And in 2015, 35 people died in a collision between a passenger boat and a scow on the Nile.

 


France reiterates support for Morocco’s Western Sahara plan

France reiterates support for Morocco’s Western Sahara plan
Updated 27 February 2024
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France reiterates support for Morocco’s Western Sahara plan

France reiterates support for Morocco’s Western Sahara plan
  • The foreign minister’s visit comes after a series of diplomatic tensions between Rabat and Paris, the former colonial power which is home to a large diaspora

RABAT: France’s Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne, during a trip to Morocco intended to warm strained relations, on Monday reiterated French support of Morocco’s autonomy plan for disputed Western Sahara.
The former Spanish colony is largely controlled by Morocco but claimed by the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, which in 2020 declared a “self-defense war” and seeks the territory’s independence.
The United Nations considers Western Sahara a “non-self-governing territory.”
“This is an existential issue for Morocco. We know it,” Sejourne said during a press conference alongside his Moroccan counterpart, Nasser Bourita.
Sejourne said Morocco can count on France’s “clear and constant support” for its autonomy plan.
Rabat advocates limited autonomy for the vast desert territory which is home to abundant phosphates and fisheries.
Sejourne told journalists he wanted to support Moroccan efforts in developing the area.
“Morocco has invested a lot in development projects for the benefit of the local population and in terms of training, renewable energies, tourism,” and the use of ocean resources, he said.
The foreign minister’s visit comes after a series of diplomatic tensions between Rabat and Paris, the former colonial power which is home to a large diaspora.
Moroccans have been particularly upset by President Emmanuel Macron’s desired rapprochement with Algeria.
Sejourne proposed on Monday a partnership with Morocco focussed over the next 30 years on renewable energies, training and industrial development.
Morocco’s Bourita said “France is a distinguished partner of Morocco on the political, economic and humanitarian levels.”
The Polisario continues to demand a UN-supervised referendum on self-determination, which was agreed in a 1991 ceasefire accord after a 15-year war between the Front and Morocco. The referendum has still not taken place.
In late 2020 then-US president Donald Trump recognized Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara in return for Rabat’s normalization of ties with Israel. Morocco has since then pursued an increasingly intense diplomatic effort to win over other countries.