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the pillaging

Israel Is Demolishing Gaza’s Cultural Heritage

During war, cultural property is supposed to be immune from attack. ​In Gaza, it’s being rapidly destroyed.

Gaza City's Qasr Al Basha, also known as the Pasha’s Palace, dates from the seventeenth century. It housed a museum and a girls’ school before it was damaged by the Israeli bombardment.

Gaza might soon be a land without a past. Israeli bombardment from land and air has been so thorough and discriminate that whatever Gazans can claim as their distinct cultural inheritance and artistic achievement is now either rubble and ruin or under serious threat. The Municipal Library is gone. The Central Archives facility has been gutted completely; burned inside was a century’s documentary evidence of Gaza’s urban development. The Edward Said Library, with its English language collection, is likely a ruin too. Souq Al Zawiya, Gaza’s oldest continuous market in the Old City, has been evaporated. The only museum in Rafah is a mass of electrical cabling and dust; little remains of the grand Pasha Palace, where Napoleon once stopped during his Egyptian campaign. The modern Palace of Justice, home of Gaza’s court system, was deliberately demolished in early December. Sometimes Israeli targeting seems churlishly spiteful. The Rashad Al Shawa Center had a theater for films and musicians, stained glass above its central hall, and a small library. It was here, in 1998, with Bill Clinton in the audience, that the Palestine Liberation Organization voted to remove from its charter all references to the destruction of Israel. That fact did not spare the place; the Center is now a husk.

Early in his thinking, Raphael Lemkin, the creator of the theory of genocide, thought a people’s artistic, religious, literary, and iconographic heritage so vital to their thriving that to wipe it out completely would still count as a vast crime even if the plunderers left the people alive. He called such an act “vandalism,” later, “cultural genocide,” and like most of his better ideas, it did not survive the abattoir of secretarial drafts and committee debates on its way to codification in the 1948 Genocide Convention. Lemkin’s cosmopolitanism—naïve though it was, and born from the false promise of a right to a homeland in someone else’s home—was motivated by the romantic idea that humankind in all its forms was capable of majesty. In pursuit of its own permanence, importance, or glory, every society built its monoliths and megastructures, its temples and statues, and each in turn gifted something of value to the human whole. The defiling of one monument, one altar, one library was therefore an assault on all libraries, all altars, all monuments. Cultural expression was shared expression, universal, bound in a common trove.

There has been much fraught talk of intent since Israel appeared before the International Court of Justice charged with genocide. Just how tightly has the siege on the Strip been held? With what foreknowledge did military commanders continue to cut off the enclaves and exclaves Palestinians were told were safe from shrapnel and strafing? Yet outside the courtroom, intent matters little; the accumulated effect of Israeli actions is enough to judge their morality. Taken with the gruesomely high death toll—two-thirds of which is made up by children and women—the extreme vandalism visited upon Gaza’s cultural identity speaks in only one direction: a determination to make Palestinian life just another subterranean strata, one more vanished civilization under the rubble to be poked and peered at as a curio many years into a darker future; a lost society to join all the others.

Like everywhere else in the Mediterranean basin, Gaza’s scarred soil sits atop that of other civilizations, and its compounded layers reach down and back to the earliest examples of human settlement. Beneath its landmarks rest the landmarks of earlier ages; a sandstone wall traces the track of a much earlier edifice made of mudbrick. The Great Omari Mosque in the Old City, Gaza’s largest religious site, was once Roman, then Byzantine, transformed by early Muslims and Abbasids, conquered by Crusaders, passing between Mamluk glory and Mongol ravages, restored by the Ottomans, damaged by the British (Crusaders, again), lately entering Palestinian life as the epicenter and emblem of Gaza’s endurance. Not much of it remains now but a few arches. In December, the octagonal minaret stood, stripped down to its base by Israeli shelling. By late January, the tower was cleaved in half.  

And it is no relief to know the bombing is nondenominational; Israeli gunners are just as content splitting open churches as mosques. Nearly 500 people were sheltering under the eaves of Saint Porphyrius, a Greek Orthodox church said to be the third-oldest in the world, when an Israeli missile struck it on October 19. Among the 18 killed was Marwan Tarazi, custodian of the vast, vibrant archive of pictures taken by the famous Palestinian Armenian photographer Kegham Djeghalian between the 1940s and 1970s. Djeghalian liked scenes of everyday life: family picnics under the citrus groves, fez-topped suited men drinking coffee on the boardwalk, shopkeepers watching from their stalls. The ordinary tedium of the working day looks miraculous when seen from the wreckage.   

We are told, and told again, to consider Israeli crimes as excesses, to treat its army’s barbarism as regrettable overreach. This is what happens in war, plead Israel’s dutiful linebackers; savagery must be met in kind, goes the cynical and weary lament. “Whoever dares to accuse our soldiers of war crimes are hypocritical liars who lack so much as one drop of morality,” Netanyahu said in his infamous “Amalek” remarks. “The IDF is the most moral army in the world.” No bomb or shell is unleashed on hospital or museum, we’re reassured, without good intelligence of an enemy cache or bunker or tunnel. Such tortured logic has its limits. The artillery damage to the 1600-year-old St. Hilarion monastery complex—the oldest Christian site of its kind in the Middle East—was clearly inflicted because the plastic roof covering the ruins provides excellent cover from JDAM guided bombs. The Greek-era site of Anthedon Harbour with its cemetery and seaside ramparts needed to be fired upon in case it was used as a tactical defensive position. The Al Sammara bathhouse in Zeitoun Quarter, probably dating from the fourteenth century, was obviously obliterated because Hamas fighters were caught sweltering in their towels.

Kill the past, kill the future. Pride, inspiration, curiosity, passion—these are the emotions curtailed when you cut a people off from the roots of their land, when you shatter every place where those same emotions might be fulfilled. The Israeli army has made learning of any kind an impossibility. According to United Nations statistics, around 625,000 school-age children remain in Gaza, and not a single one of them has a place where they can study or be taught. In U.N. parlance, the total eradication of every school in Gaza is diplomatically called “no access to education.” 

What goes for children goes for adults, though only they can grasp the scale of what has been stripped from them. Israa University was opened in 2014 with a special emphasis on scholarships for the poor. Sixty-five percent of its students were women. “Poverty,” Dr Ahmed Alhussaina, Israa’s vice president, told The Intercept, “would not stand an obstacle in front of any Palestinian that wants to pursue a college degree.” The campus was kept intact longer than any of Gaza’s other universities because it was occupied as an IDF command post for two months; in mid-January, Israa was flattened to the cheers of watching troops. The 3,000 artifacts from Gaza’s pre-Islamic past in its collection were either looted or pulverised. The divisional commander responsible for bringing it down, Barak Hiram, was later censured for doing so without higher sanction—permission the commander’s superiors would have given anyway: “If you had submitted the request to collapse the university for my approval,” Major General Yaron Finkelman informed Hiram, “I would have approved it.” 

In early January, an IDF soldier named Yishai Shalev (a hairdresser in civilian life) filmed a video of himself: “For all those asking why there is no education in Gaza …” He pans over his shoulder. Beyond lies the shattered frontage of Al Azhar University, an open blast wound in its right flank. “Oops,” says Shalev. “We’ve had a missile fall on them. That sucks. Too bad. That’s how you’ll never be engineers anymore.” “Never” is the critical word here, for what such free and easy destruction teaches Gazans in the absence of their own schools and colleges is futility. No matter what you build, Israel warns, it will be brought down; no matter how much you might wish to improve yourself and your lot, it will be stripped from you; no matter how nobly you strive to distinguish yourself from the philistine nihilists of Hamas, we will treat you like them anyway. Look upon my works, they instruct, and despair. 

In the persistent pattern of cultural vandalism, you can catch a hint of frustration on the part of the destroyers. There’s an old Zionist slogan or talking point, sometimes still repeated in public by the ignorant or belligerent, that Palestine isn’t really a nation with a history of its own; that its people are really just another flavor of Arab who could live anywhere else. This was never true, and even in the neglect of places like the Omari Mosque and the Pasha Palace due to lack of funding for restoration work and a lack of building supplies, their durability represents Gaza’s own unique history, distinct even from Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Jenin. But war is the zone where will meets possibility. Netanyahu always had the will but often lacked the possibility. Just as he acted for years to keep the Palestinian leadership in both territories divided—propping up Hamas at the expense of Fatah secularists in the West Bank—so as to foreclose the emergence of a united nation, he acts now to eradicate the very foundations on which a future nation could be built.

In peace and war cultural property is supposed to be immune from attack, protected by the second protocol of the 1954 Hague Convention. It has not shielded anything in Gaza, nor did it stop Eli Eskozido, the head of the Israel Antiquities Authority, from sending his deputy to inspect a warehouse in Gaza stacked with fragile artifacts (controlled jointly by the Palestinian Antiquities Office and the École Biblique et Archéologique Française). Eskozido then bravely published a video of soldiers at the site online (with the comic book caption “Wow!”) accompanied by a photo of dozens of pieces displayed in glass cases in the lobby of the Knesset. Eskozido deleted the video; the Israeli Antiquities Authority denied taking anything from the storeroom. No one but the Israelis know how many objects have been stolen from Gaza. 

Both the glories and the detritus of antiquity tell us: Even if the people perish, their works and monuments still remain. Survivors of past cataclysms warn us: Even if their works and monuments are shattered, the people still remember. What happens, though, when both treasure and treasurer are effaced from the earth, when life and history are condemned as equally perishable, when souls and spoils are weighed, measured, and judged alike as equally disposable?

Treasures are everything in a land deprived of everything but treasures. A jag of Umayyad pottery can sate no hunger, a purse of Roman denarii entombed for two millennia will not keep the lights on, but these emblems are good reasons to go on surviving, to persist when everything around you speaks only of death. A turquoise mosaic on a mosque wall, a gold-tinged fresco on a chapel vault, the leaf-fringed curve of a Hellenic urn—all stoke the dream of a time when their admirers might not be threatened by bombs and tanks, in a secure nation, proof at last of a people’s worthiness to exist and live unmolested in the lands of their birth.