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Al-Pasha Palace before and after its destruction

Is the International Order Failing to Protect Cultural Heritage in Gaza?

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In the past six months of conflict in Gaza, the Israeli military has caused significant destruction to the region's cultural heritage, obliterating about 60 percent of its sites and monuments. This includes the ancient Bronze Age settlement of Tell el-‘Ajjul, the nearly 1,700-year-old St. Hilarion monastery, and the historic Pasha’s Palace. Although cultural destruction is sadly inevitable in conflicts, Palestinian and civil rights organizations claim that this destruction is intentional. 

According to Salah Al-Houdalieh, an archaeologist residing in the West Bank and serving as the secretary general of the International Council on Monuments and Sites–Palestine, the current rate of cultural loss in Palestine is unparalleled. He claims in an article published on Sapiens that historical landmarks and artifacts are even being ‘systematically demolished’. In a densely populated area like Gaza, collateral or incidental damage is also ineveitable.

Global Frameworks for Cultural Preservation 

The destruction of cultural heritage in conflict zones is recognized as a war crime under various international agreements. The United Nations Security Council's Resolution 2347, adopted in 2017, condemns the unlawful destruction, looting, and smuggling of cultural heritage. International efforts to protect cultural property date back to the 1874 Brussels Declaration and include the 1954 Hague Convention and UNESCO’s 1956 Recommendation on International Principles Applicable to Archaeological Excavations. 

Significant legal precedents include the 2004 conviction of Miodrag Jokić by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for attacks on Dubrovnik, and the 2016 International Criminal Court sentencing of Ahmad Al-Faqi Al-Mahdi to nine years for the destruction of religious monuments in Timbuktu, marking the first instance of recognizing cultural heritage destruction as a war crime

But such agreements can only do so much, and they certainly can’t dictate exactly where bombs drop. 

 The Great Mosque of Gaza (Omari Mosque) has sustained damage.

The Great Mosque of Gaza (Omari Mosque) has sustained damage. (Gaza Municipality) 

Cultural Heritage Destruction in Gaza 

United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, passed in 1967, mandates Israel, as the occupying power, to protect the cultural heritage of the Palestinian territories. However, during the ongoing conflict in Gaza, Israel has been accused of the systematic destruction of cultural heritage sites. Reports from the Palestinian Ministry of Culture indicate that at least 200 archaeological sites and buildings of historical significance in Gaza have been destroyed by Israeli forces. 

The Omari Grand Mosque, dating back to the seventh century, has sustained severe damage. The Church of St. Porphyrius, one of the oldest functioning churches globally, was partially destroyed by an Israeli airstrike. The archaeological site of Blakhiyya, Gaza’s ancient port, has also suffered significant damage, with thousands of artifacts seized by Israeli soldiers. 

And it is not just the Israeli attacks that are harming the culture of the area. In the West Bank, Palestinians have resorted to illegal excavations, hoping to find artifacts to sell on the antiquities black market. This looting has caused further damage to sites such as Tell Qila, Khirbet al-Karmil, and Khirbet Arnaba. 

The International Community's Action 

Protecting cultural heritage during conflicts is undeniably challenging, but international organizations like UNESCO possess the means to deter such destruction. They can issue strong condemnations, gather evidence through satellite imagery, and hold perpetrators accountable.  

In fact, in December 2023, UNESCO intergovernmental Committee for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954 Hague Convention) decided to grant “provisional enhanced protection” to Saint Hilarion monastery complex, located south bank of Wadi Gaza. 

It said in its statement that it was ‘deeply concerned about the impact of the ongoing fighting on cultural heritage’ and ‘UNESCO calls on all parties involved to strictly respect international law. Cultural property should not be targeted or used for military purposes, as it is considered to be civilian infrastructure’. 

And while Al-Houdalieh acknowledges the St. Hilarion monastery has been granted provisional enhanced protection and monitored via satellite, he says other efforts have been largely absent. 

He also complains that other prominent heritage organizations have remained silent ‘as far as I am aware’, and that the World Archaeologists Congress and the International Council on Monuments and Sites have issued only ‘weak statements’ that fail to address Israel’s role in the destruction. 

Al-Houdalieh goes on to compare how the international community's failure to address the destruction of Palestinian cultural heritage contrasts sharply with its actions in other conflicts.  

For conflicts in Mali and the former Yugoslavia, international organizations prosecuted individuals responsible for destroying cultural assets. Yet no such measures have been applied during Arab-Israeli wars.’ 

So, can more really be done? 

Problems of Cultural Heritage Protection 

The situation in Gaza starkly highlights the fragility of cultural heritage in conflict zones and underscores a broader issue: the international community's struggle to enforce protective measures effectively. 

International frameworks like the Hague Convention and various United Nations resolutions provide a robust legal foundation for protecting cultural heritage. However, the devastation of sites in Gaza suggests that these frameworks are either ineffective or are not being fully utilized or enforced. The recent provisional enhanced protection granted to the Saint Hilarion monastery by UNESCO is a step in the right direction, yet it remains an isolated example rather than the norm. It remains to be seen whether it will actually stop the missiles landing there.

Ultimately, the preservation of cultural heritage in Gaza is not solely a regional issue but a global responsibility. It is imperative for international organizations to fulfill their obligations and use every available tool to protect and preserve what remains of Gaza’s cultural heritage, as well as others around the world. 

Top image: Al-Pasha Palace before and after its destruction. Source: Palestine Ministry of Tourism 

 
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Gary

Gary is an editor and content manager for Ancient Origins. He has a BA in Politics and Philosophy from the University of York and a Diploma in Marketing from CIM. He has worked in education, the educational sector, social work... Read More

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