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)
Short Url
Updated 10 December 2023
Follow

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.”

 


Turkiye detains 7 suspected of spying for Israel

Turkiye detains 7 suspected of spying for Israel
Updated 21 sec ago
Follow

Turkiye detains 7 suspected of spying for Israel

Turkiye detains 7 suspected of spying for Israel
ISTANBUL: Turkiye on Tuesday said it had detained seven people, including a special detective, suspected of spying for Israel’s Mossad intelligence service.
The operation by Turkiye’s spy agency and Istanbul counter-terror police showed the suspects had passed on information to Mossad for money, the Anadolu state news agency reported.
The raids come after Turkish authorities rounded up 34 people in January suspected of planning abductions and spying for Mossad.
Istanbul prosecutors had then said 12 other suspects remained at large.
Relations between Turkiye and Israel imploded after the outbreak of the war in Gaza nearly five months ago.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has turned into one of the world’s harshest critics of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
He has compared Netanyahu to Adolf Hitler and asked Israel’s Western allies to drop their support for the “state terrorism” being conducted in Gaza.
After the January arrest, Erdogan said the Turkish operation “seriously disturbed” Israel.
“Wait a minute,” he said, referring to the Israeli authorities. “You will get to know Turkiye.”

Iran executed 834 people last year, highest since 2015: rights groups

Iran executed 834 people last year, highest since 2015: rights groups
Updated 05 March 2024
Follow

Iran executed 834 people last year, highest since 2015: rights groups

Iran executed 834 people last year, highest since 2015: rights groups
  • The number of executions, which Iran has carried out by hanging in recent years, was up some 43 percent on 2022

PARIS: Iran executed a “staggering” total of at least 834 people last year, the highest number since 2015 as capital punishment surged in the Islamic republic, two rights groups said Tuesday.
The number of executions, which Iran has carried out by hanging in recent years, was up some 43 percent on 2022.
It marked only the second time in two decades that over 800 executions were recorded in a year, after 972 executions in 2015, Norway-based Iran Human Rights (IHR) and Paris-based Together Against the Death Penalty said in the joint report.
The groups accused Iran of using the death penalty to spread fear throughout society in the wake of the protests sparked by the September 2022 death in police custody of Mahsa Amini that shook the authorities.
“Instilling societal fear is the regime’s only way to hold on to power, and the death penalty is its most important instrument,” said IHR director Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam in the report, which described the figure of 834 as a “staggering total.”
Iran has executed nine men in cases linked to attacks on security forces during the 2022 protests — two in 2022, six in 2023 and one so far in 2024 — according to the rights groups.
But executions have been stepped up on other charges, notably in drug-related cases, which had until recent years seen a fall.
“Of particular concern is the dramatic escalation in the number of drug-related executions in 2023, which rose to 471 people, more than 18 times higher than the figures recorded in 2020,” said the report.
Members of ethnic minorities, notably the Sunni Baluch from the southeast of Iran, are “grossly overrepresented among those executed” on drug-related charges, it said.
At least 167 members of the Baluch minority were executed in total, accounting for 20 percent of the total executions in 2023, even though the minority accounts for only around five percent of Iran’s population.
ECPM director Raphael Chenuil-Hazan said the “lack of reaction” by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) was sending “the wrong signal to the Iranian authorities.”
Most hangings in Iran are carried out within the confines of prison but the report said that in 2023 the number of hangings carried out in public in Iran tripled from 2022, with seven people hanged in public spaces.
At least 22 women were executed, marking the highest number in the past decade, the report said.
Fifteen of them were hanged on murder charges and NGOs have long warned that women who kill an abusive partner or relative risk being hanged.
In 2023, only 15 percent of the recorded executions were announced by official Iranian media, with IHR confirming the other executions with its own sources.
Amiry-Moghaddam expressed concern that a lack of international outrage at the executions, in particular with attention focused on the Gaza war between Israel and Hamas, was only encouraging the Islamic republic to carry out more hangings.
“The inconsistency in the international community’s reaction to the executions in Iran is unfortunate and sends the wrong signal to the authorities,” he said.


Ships entering Yemeni waters must obtain permit, Houthi minister says

Ships entering Yemeni waters must obtain permit, Houthi minister says
Updated 05 March 2024
Follow

Ships entering Yemeni waters must obtain permit, Houthi minister says

Ships entering Yemeni waters must obtain permit, Houthi minister says
  • Houthi militants have repeatedly launched drones, missiles against international commercial shipping in Gulf of Aden since mid-November
  • The near-daily attacks have forced firms into long and costly diversions around southern Africa, stoked fears Israel's war can destabilize Middle East

CAIRO: Ships will have to obtain a permit from Yemen’s Houthi-controlled Maritime Affairs Authority before entering Yemeni waters, Houthi Telecommunications Minister Misfer Al-Numair said on Monday.
Houthi militants have repeatedly launched drones and missiles against international commercial shipping in the Gulf of Aden since mid-November, saying they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians against Israel’s offensive in Gaza.
The near-daily attacks have forced firms into long and costly diversions around southern Africa, and stoked fears that the Israel-Hamas war could destabilize the wider Middle East. The United States and Britain have bombed Houthi targets in response.
“(We) are ready to assist requests for permits and identify ships with the Yemeni Navy, and we confirm this is out of concern for their safety,” Al Masirah TV, the main television news outlet run by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement, reported Al-Numair as saying.
The territorial waters affected by the Yemeni order extend halfway out into the 20-km (12-mile) wide Bab Al-Mandab Strait, the narrow mouth of the Red Sea through which around 15 percent of the world’s shipping traffic passes on its way to or from the Suez Canal.
In normal times, more than a quarter of global container cargo — including apparel, appliances, auto parts, chemicals and agricultural products like coffee — move via the Suez Canal.
Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said there “is good reason to doubt” that the Iran-allied Houthis would stop their assaults on vessels if a ceasefire ends Israel’s major military operations in Gaza.
“They may decide that they like the idea of controlling the amount of shipping going through the Red Sea, and will continue this for an indefinite period of time,” Gates said at the TPM24 container shipping conference in Long Beach, California.
Elsewhere on Monday, Hong Kong-based HGC Global Communications said that at least four underwater communications cables — Asia-Africa-Europe 1, the Europe India Gateway, Seacom and TGN-Gulf — had been damaged last week in the Red Sea, without stating the cause.
It estimated that the damage had affected 25 percent of the data traffic flowing under the Red Sea, and said in a statement that it had devised a plan to reroute traffic.
Al-Numair’s ministry on Saturday blamed US and British attacks for any damage to cables.
In the latest incident, the UK Maritime Trade Operations agency said on Monday it had received a report that a vessel had been damaged by two explosions, 91 nautical miles southeast of Aden, but there were no casualties and the vessel was proceeding to its next port of call.
Yemen has been mired in conflict since Houthis ousted the government from the capital Sanaa in late 2014. The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in 2015, aiming to restore the government.


Ships entering Yemeni waters must obtain permit, Houthi minister says

Ships entering Yemeni waters must obtain permit, Houthi minister says
Updated 05 March 2024
Follow

Ships entering Yemeni waters must obtain permit, Houthi minister says

Ships entering Yemeni waters must obtain permit, Houthi minister says
  • Yemen’s Houthis hit container vessel in Gulf of Aden with missile, US CENTCOM says
  • 4 Red Sea communication cables cut as Houthis launch more attacks in the vital waterway

CAIRO: Ships will have to obtain a permit from Yemen’s Houthi-controlled Maritime Affairs Authority before entering Yemeni waters, Houthi Telecommunications Minister Misfer Al-Numair said on Monday.
Houthi militants have repeatedly launched drones and missiles against international commercial shipping in the Gulf of Aden since mid-November, saying they are acting in solidarity with Palestinians against Israel’s offensive in Gaza.

One of two anti-ship ballistic missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthis at the container vessel M/V MSC SKY II in the Gulf of Aden hit the ship and caused “damage,” the US Central Command (CENTCOM) said on Tuesday.
Initial reports indicated no injuries and the Liberian-flagged, Swiss-owned container vessel did not request assistance and continued on its way, CENTCOM said in a statement.
A military spokesperson for the Iran-aligned Houthis said on Monday that they targeted the vessel with “a number of suitable naval missiles.” Houthis are targeting Red Sea shipping lanes in support of Palestinians in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.
The US military said that Houthis also launched an anti-ship ballistic missile from Yemen into the southern Red Sea, however, it impacted the water with no damage or injuries to commercial or US Navy ships.
CENTCOM forces conducted “self-defense” strikes against two anti-ship cruise missiles that presented “an imminent threat” to merchant vessels and US Navy ships in the region, the statement added.
The United States and Britain have launched strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen and redesignated the militia as a terrorist group.
Houthis’ Red Sea attacks have disrupted global shipping, forcing firms to re-route to longer and more expensive journeys around southern Africa, and stoked fears that the Israel-Hamas war could spread to destabilize the wider Middle East.
“(We) are ready to assist requests for permits and identify ships with the Yemeni Navy, and we confirm this is out of concern for their safety,” Al Masirah TV, the main television news outlet run by Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthi movement, reported Al-Numair as saying.
The territorial waters affected by the Yemeni order extend halfway out into the 20-km (12-mile) wide Bab Al-Mandab Strait, the narrow mouth of the Red Sea through which around 15 percent of the world’s shipping traffic passes on its way to or from the Suez Canal.
In normal times, more than a quarter of global container cargo — including apparel, appliances, auto parts, chemicals and agricultural products like coffee — move via the Suez Canal.
Former US Defense Secretary Robert Gates said there “is good reason to doubt” that the Iran-allied Houthis would stop their assaults on vessels if a ceasefire ends Israel’s major military operations in Gaza.
“They may decide that they like the idea of controlling the amount of shipping going through the Red Sea, and will continue this for an indefinite period of time,” Gates said at the TPM24 container shipping conference in Long Beach, California.

Red Sea cables cut
Elsewhere on Monday, Hong Kong-based HGC Global Communications said that at least four underwater communications cables — Asia-Africa-Europe 1, the Europe India Gateway, Seacom and TGN-Gulf — had been damaged last week in the Red Sea, without stating the cause.
It estimated that the damage had affected 25 percent of the data traffic flowing under the Red Sea, and said in a statement that it had devised a plan to reroute traffic.
Al-Numair’s ministry on Saturday blamed US and British attacks for any damage to cables.
In the latest incident, the UK Maritime Trade Operations agency said on Monday it had received a report that a vessel had been damaged by two explosions, 91 nautical miles southeast of Aden, but there were no casualties and the vessel was proceeding to its next port of call.
Yemen has been mired in conflict since Houthis ousted the government from the capital Sanaa in late 2014. The Saudi Arabia-led military coalition intervened in 2015, aiming to restore the government.


UN envoy says ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe Hamas committed sexual violence on Oct. 7

UN envoy says ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe Hamas committed sexual violence on Oct. 7
Updated 05 March 2024
Follow

UN envoy says ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe Hamas committed sexual violence on Oct. 7

UN envoy says ‘reasonable grounds’ to believe Hamas committed sexual violence on Oct. 7

UNITED NATIONS: The UN envoy focusing on sexual violence in conflict said in a new report Monday that there are “reasonable grounds” to believe Hamas committed rape, “sexualized torture,” and other cruel and inhumane treatment of women during its surprise attack in southern Israel on Oct. 7.
There are also “reasonable grounds to believe that such violence may be ongoing,” said Pramila Patten, who visited Israel and the West Bank from Jan. 29 to Feb. 14 with a nine-member technical team.
Based on first-hand accounts of released hostages, she said the team “found clear and convincing information” that some women and children during their captivity were subjected to the same conflict-related sexual violence including rape and “sexualized torture.”
The report comes nearly five months after the Oct. 7 attacks, which left about 1,200 people dead and some 250 others taken hostage. Israel’s war against Hamas has since laid waste to the Gaza Strip, killing more than 30,000 people, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. The UN says a quarter of Gaza’s 2.3 million people face starvation.
Hamas has rejected earlier allegations that its fighters committed sexual assault.
Patten stressed at a press conference launching the report that the team’s visit was not to investigate allegations of sexual violence but to gather, analyze and verify information for Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ annual report on sexual violence in conflict and for the UN Security Council.
Her key recommendation is to encourage Israel to grant access to the UN human rights chief and the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Palestinian territories and Israel “to carry out full-fledged investigations into the alleged violations” — and she expressed hope the Security Council would do this.
Patten said the team was not able to meet with any victims of sexual violence “despite concerted efforts to encourage them to come forward.” While the number of victims remains unknown, she said, “a small number of those who are undergoing treatment are reportedly experiencing severe mental distress and trauma.”
However, team members held 33 meetings with Israeli institutions and conducted interviews with 34 people including survivors and witnesses of the Oct. 7 attacks, released hostages, health providers and others.
Based on the information it gathered, Patten said, “there are reasonable grounds to believe that conflict-related sexual violence occurred during the 7 October attacks in multiple locations across Gaza periphery, including rape and gang rape, in at least three locations.”
Across various locations, she said, the team found “that several fully naked or partially naked bodies from the waist down were recovered – mostly women – with hands tied and shot multiple times, often in the head.”
While this is circumstantial, she said the pattern of undressing and restraining victims “may be indicative of some forms of sexual violence.”
At the Nova music festival and its surroundings, Patten said, “there are reasonable grounds to believe that multiple incidents of sexual violence took place with victims being subjected to rape and/or gang rape and then killed or killed while being raped.”
“There are further accounts of individuals who witnessed at least two incidents of rape of corpses of women,” Patten said. “Other credible sources at the Nova music festival site described seeing multiple murdered individuals, mostly women, whose bodies were found naked from the waist down, some totally naked,” some shot in the head, some tied to trees or poles with their hands bound.
On Road 232 — the road to leave the festival — “credible information based on witness accounts describe an incident of the rape of two women by armed elements,” Patten said. Other reported rapes and gang rapes couldn’t be verified and require investigation.
“Along this road, several bodies were found with genital injuries, along with injuries to other body parts,” she said. “Discernible patterns of genital mutilation could not be verified at this time but warrant future investigation.”
She said “the mission team also found a pattern of bound naked or partially naked bodies from the waist down, in some cases tied to structures including trees and poles, along Road 232.”
People fleeing the Nova music festival also attempted to escape south and sought shelter in and around kibbutz Reim where Patten said there are “reasonable grounds” to believe sexual violence occurred.
The mission team verified the rape of a woman outside a bomb shelter and heard of other allegations of rape that could not yet be verified.
At Kibbutz Be’eri, Patten said, her team “was able to determine that at least two allegations of sexual violence widely repeated in the media, were unfounded due to either new superseding information or inconsistency in the facts gathered.”
These included a highly publicized allegation that a pregnant woman’s womb was reportedly ripped open before being killed with her fetus stabbed inside her, Patten said.
Another was “the interpretation initially made of the body of a girl found separated from the rest of her family, naked from the waist down,” she said. “It was determined by the mission team that the crime scene had been altered by a bomb squad and the bodies moved, explaining the separation of the body of the girl from the rest of her family.”
Patten said further investigation is needed of allegations, including of bodies found naked and in one case gagged, at kibbutz Be’eri to determine if sexual violence occurred.
At Kibbutz Kfar Aza, Patten said, verification of sexual violence was not possible. But she said “available circumstantial information – notably the recurring pattern of female victims found undressed, bound, and shot – indicates that sexual violence, including potential sexualized torture, or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, may have occurred.”
On Oct. 7, the Nahal Oz Military Base, which operated as a hub for signals intelligence and monitoring of the Gaza perimeter fence, was also breached by Hamas and “a significant number” of male and female soldiers stationed there were killed, and seven young female soldiers were abducted and taken to Gaza, Patten said.
Patten stressed that “the true prevalence of sexual violence during the Oct. 7 attacks and their aftermath may take months or years to emerge and may never be fully known.”