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|Cultural Genocide of Palestinians
The Israeli blitzkrieg against the Palestinians in Gaza has exceeded 125 days. During this period more than 100 Gaza heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed by Israeli shelling and bombardment.
The war in Palestine, which was seen once as a human tragedy, has also exposed another side of the Zionist program, that of a ‘cultural genocide’ - the continuous shelling and firing has destroyed more than 100 Gaza heritages belonging to both the Muslims and Christians, in the Gaza City and West Bank and around Palestine.
This could be described as only an attempt to get rid of the civilisational treasures of the Palestinian land, so that no one could lay claim to it in the future and the Zionist lobby could proclaim it as the Promised Land to its followers and sympathisers.
Besides killing more than 15,000 Palestinians and destroying thousands of homes in the territory, according to Gaza's health ministry, there have also been tremendous losses to the region's ancient and globally significant cultural heritage. The region was a hub for commerce and culture under Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine rule. It remained influential for centuries thereafter.
Gaza is home to some of the oldest churches and mosques in the world, but many have not escaped the widespread destruction of Israel's military offensive. Of 117 religious sites, which were reportedly damaged or destroyed by 31 December, the BBC has verified 74 cases. Seventy-two are mosques and two are churches.
In his report for Al Jazeera, Indlieb Farazi Saber reported that an ancient harbour dating back to 800 BC, a mosque that was home to rare manuscripts and one of the world’s oldest Christian monasteries are just a few of at least 195 heritage sites that have been destroyed or damaged since Israel’s war on Gaza began, according to an NGO documenting war damage on cultural sites.
Wiping out the cultural heritage of a people is one of the many war crimes South Africa alleges against Israel in a lawsuit that was heard the past week at the International Court of Justice. It states: “Israel has damaged and destroyed numerous centres of Palestinian learning and culture”, including libraries, religious sites and places of ancient historical importance.
This land of the Canaanites – ancestors of Palestinians has seen many Empires ruling over this region – from the ancient Egyptians, Assyrians and Romans –each leaving relics of their own cultural heritage behind. For centuries Greeks, Jews, Persians and Nabateans have also lived along this stretch of coast.
Gaza is strategically located on the Mediterranean’s eastern shores, and was always at the centre of the trade routes from Eurasia to Africa. Historically, from 1300 BC onwards, the Via Maris – a route running from Heliopolis in ancient Egypt, cutting across Gaza’s western coastline and then crossing into Syrian lands – was the main route that travellers would take on their journeys to Damascus.
Heritage for Peace, a group surveying the damage done in Gaza, documents damage done to so far more than 100 of these landmarks in Gaza since the start of the present conflict.
Both the BBC and Al Jazeera report that the casualties include the Great Omari Mosque, one of the most important and ancient mosques in historical Palestine; the Church of Saint Porphyrius, thought to be the third oldest church in the entire world; a 2,000-year-old Roman cemetery in northern Gaza excavated only last year; and the Rafah Museum, a space in southern Gaza which was dedicated to teaching about the territory's long and multi-layered heritage - until it was hammered by airstrikes early on in the conflict.
Rafah Museum’s director Suhaila Shaheen, in a video interview posted on the museum's Facebook page, standing amidst the rubble of the destroyed space said, “There were priceless items from coins, precious stones, copper plates, clothes, all of which is under rubble now. The Museum of Rafah is in God's care now.”
Isber Sabrine, president of Heritage for Peace, in an interview with US-based NPR said, “If this heritage be no more in Gaza, it will be a big loss of the identity of the people in Gaza.”
Sabrine said his organisation plans to continue the work of surveying and monitoring the status of cultural landmarks in Gaza over the coming months, both on the ground in collaboration with locals, as well as using satellite imagery.
Gaza's Casualties Of War Include Its Historic Mosques
The 1954 Hague Convention, agreed to by Palestinians and Israelis, is supposed to safeguard landmarks from the ravages of war. But landmarks in Gaza have been destroyed by Israeli strikes in earlier rounds of fighting. Dozens of sites, including the now-obliterated Great Omari Mosque, suffered damage in 2014. A report by UNESCO, the United Nations body that designates and protects World Heritage sites, cites further destruction to cultural and historic sites in Gaza in 2021.
"UNESCO is deeply concerned about the adverse impact of the on-going fighting on cultural heritage in Palestine and Israel," said a UNESCO spokesperson in a statement sent to the NPR. "Our organisation calls on all parties involved to strictly adhere to international law. Cultural property should not be targeted or used for military purposes, as it is considered to be civilian infrastructure."
In its investigation carried out by Reha Kansara and Ahmed Nour, the BBC used satellite imagery and users generated content to examine evidence from both before and after buildings were hit.
Hamas, in a statement, has said 378 mosques and three churches had been hit up to 9 January, though this figure has not been independently verified. On its part, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) says Hamas fighters are using places of worship for cover and as places from which to launch attacks – something that Hamas denies.
According to international humanitarian law, intentionally targeting religious buildings during conflict is a war crime. There is an exception, however, if such sites are being used for military purposes. In its defence Israel claims that they were allegedly being used for military purposes.
It would not be wrong to say that this destruction seems to be a planned offensive, because if everything is wiped out completely, then Israel could claim that the land belongs to Jews only, thus negating the claims of both the Islamic and Christian leaders to proclaim this as a Holy Land of all the Abrahamic Religions, and Palestine as a state existed before the birth of Israel deceitfully. Further, no proof would be left for the future generations to assert this reality. Indeed, ‘Israel has gone too far’ a sentiment shared by a majority of Americans, is endorsed by other nations too.
(Asad Mirza is a Delhi-based senior political and international affairs commentator.)
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