In recent weeks, Israel has unleashed its violence on Gaza, and in every way, not just the most obvious.
As I write this text, the death toll during this conflict has just passed 15,000. We see images of the dead and the injured, of people pulling victims out of the rubble. Israeli bombings on hospitals, schools and refugee camps are scandalous.
But the less talked about aspect of Israeli bombing is the destruction of cultural heritage: documents, monuments and artifacts.
On October 19, Israeli bombing damaged part of the St. Porphyry Greek Orthodox Church. Four hundred people had taken refuge inside, 18 Palestinian Christians were killed. Built in the 12th century, the church is considered the third oldest in the world.
Monuments commemorating political figures have not been spared either. On October 27, the International Federation of Journalists condemned the destruction in Jenin of the shrine where Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot dead last year, almost certainly by an Israeli soldier.
On November 14, a video captured an Israeli bulldozer demolishing monuments to former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the West Bank.
On X, author and translator Lina Mounzer posted a translation of the press release Meqdad Printing Press and Library :
“Meqdad Printing Press & Library, one of the oldest libraries in Gaza. Millions lost: newspapers, books and equipment. The accumulation of the efforts of my entire family: my mother, my father, brothers and sisters. Everything disappeared in an instant; my father lost everything.”
This week, according to the artificial intelligence and sourcing site Storyful, Gaza’s main archive center and public library were ravaged. There Municipalityfrom Gaza said that thousands of historical documents were deliberately destroyed and called on UNESCO to “intervene, protect cultural centers and condemn attacks by occupying humanitarian facilities, protected by international humanitarian law.”
Upset, a Palestinian filmmaker named Bisan Owda posted an Instagram post from Gaza about the destruction of the archive, which she said housed documents more than 100 years old. “Now we literally have nothing,” she said. “The future is unknown, the present is destroyed and the past is no longer our past… Can you imagine that they are doing all this to destroy us in depth?”
In the 1954 UNESCO Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, cultural property is protected under international law. Scholars have often argued that the intentional destruction of cultural heritage is a genocidal act, comparable to the murder and displacement of a people, because it results in, as one political philosopher put it, the “disappearance of the people himself.”
None of this is new in the history of conflicts, invasions and terrorism. Whether committed by the Romans, the British, the Nazis, or militants from Islamic groups such as the Islamic State, the destruction of cultural heritage has long been a weapon of war and conquest.
Yet, alas, once again, as is often the case with the conflict between Israel and Gaza, the question asked is: what heritage — what life — is worth protecting?
Last year, when Russia began its all-out invasion of Ukraine, many of us raised the alarm about the destruction of cultural heritage and the looting of artifacts by Russian soldiers. At that time, international organizations and academic institutions initiated discussions, formed working groups to try to help save Ukrainian cultural objects, and offered support to Ukrainian researchers.
The same did not happen to Palestinian cultural heritage during the first days of the Gaza war.
I spoke with researchers who are studying the situation remotely, who are trying to assess the extent of the damage to archives, collections and documents. It is difficult to estimate losses due to lack of access to means of communication. We hope that a truce or ceasefire will make it possible to better assess the extent of the destruction. We are also concerned that members of the Israeli Defense Forces may loot artifacts.
It is understandable that, in the context of the horrors of the past 50 days, preserving objects and buildings is not as important as protecting innocent lives. But preserving culture and history is part of protecting a people and their spirit. If Israel continues to destroy Gaza’s cultural heritage with impunity, then all of humanity loses.
Karen Attiah is a columnist at The Washington Post and publishes a weekly newsletter. She writes on international affairs, culture and social issues. Previously, she was based in Curaçao, Ghana and Nigeria.
Source: Washington Post
Translation: LG for the Palestine Media Agency