IDF Invites Israel Antiquities Authority to Gaza following “discovery” of Antiquities Storage Facility

Yesterday, Sunday, January 21st, the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, Eli Eskozido, shared on his Telegram and Instagram accounts a video showing soldiers examining a collection of antiquities in Gaza. The video contained a graphic “wow!” and a text explaining that the Deputy Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) was sent to Gaza to examine a storeroom containing antiquities.

Screenshot of Instagram and telegram story posted yesterday by Eli Eskozido Director of the IAA.

Celebrating a so-called “discovery” of a collection in the context of a war that has so far resulted in the destruction of hundreds of historical and archaeological sites and artifacts is in bad taste to say the least.

The storeroom, it emerged, belongs to the École Biblique et Archéologique Française (EBAF). Founded in 1890 in Jerusalem, it prides itself in being “the oldest biblical archaeological research centre in the Holy Land”. For 30 years the EBAF has been conducting archaeological excavations and restoration projects in Gaza in collaboration with local Palestinian archaeologists. Their work has focused on three important sites:

Tel Umm el-Amer (Monastery de Saint Hilarion) – an ancient monastery 10 kilometers south of Gaza’s Old City. The site is named after Saint Hilarion, considered a native of Gaza and the founder of monasticism in the region. The site contains remains from periods spanning from the late-Roman to the Umayyad period including five churches, a bath and elaborate mosaics. It was discovered in archaeological excavations in 1999. Tel Umm Amer/St. Hilarion Monastery had been undergoing restoration over the past four years. Since 2012, it has been included on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites. In response to an urgent request by the Palestinian Authority, it received enhanced protection from UNESCO in December. However reports from earlier this month suggest that it was nevertheless damaged in the bombing.

2. Mukheitim Byzantine Church in Jabaliya, recently restored and opened to the public in  what the EBAF described as “giving back the Palestinian heritage to the Palestinians.” According to ICOMOS’ Arab Regional Group it was also damaged in the bombings.

3. Ancient Anthedon/Balakhiya – the Iron Age Harbor also on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites. The EBAF had been excavating the site since 1995. Hamas training facilities had apparently caused damage to the site in 2013. Al Jazeera reported last week that the site had been damaged by the bombings.

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict outlines a series of obligatory measures which the warring parties must take for the purpose of protecting cultural properties from the devastation of war. According to the convention, it is forbidden for the invading party to remove cultural property from the territory in question unless it is deemed absolutely necessary for the protection of the said property. Both Israel and Palestine ratified the convention but Israel has not signed the second of the two protocols (1999).

In response to our posts about the event in which we expressed our concern that the IAA demonstrated a disregard for international law,  we were approached by the director of the Israel Antiquities Authority who asked to clarify the purpose of his deputy’s visit to Gaza as follows: “The Israel Antiquities Authority was asked by the IDF to examine a storeroom in Gaza containing ancient artifacts or artifacts which appear to be ancient. An initial examination by an archaeologist was conducted and a written report will be submitted to the IDF in due course. The artifacts have been left in place. The Israel Antiquities Authority asked the IDF to protect the artifacts in situ.”

Following this statement, in a late-night program aired last night, a document with recommendations by the IAA to the military regarding the storeroom was revealed. The two main recommendations included in this document were: 1. “Following to concerns over theft and destruction, it is recommended to move the artifacts to a temporary custody, somewhere safe. The Israel Antiquities Authority can assist with moving and guarding the items in the Rockefeller compound. 2. It is recommended to visit the storeroom again with an expanded team of archaeologists in order to examine the content of the boxes which have not yet been examined.”

These recommendations contradict the content of the messages imparted to Emek Shaveh. Following the program, Emek Shaveh requested clarifications from the IAA which maintained that the official position is to protect the artifacts in situ and not to bring them into Israel. However, the fact that the IAA has offered two different positions within a short timeframe and in light of its conduct in the past with regards to artifacts originating in occupied territories we wonder whether the official position will be followed through. We will continue to follow up on this matter and issue updates accordingly.

Gaza contains hundreds of heritage sites: antiquities sites, historic buildings, museums, cultural centers, archives, monuments and libraries. According to some estimates, 60% have suffered extensive damage or have been destroyed over the past three months including key historic sites such as the al Omari Mosque and the Church of St. Porphyrius.

As in our previous update about destruction in Gaza, we wish to reiterate that the heritage sites in Gaza belong to the people of Gaza. However, the shocking level of devastation of heritage sites in Gaza is not only a terrible loss for the people of Gaza and the Palestinian people but for all people who live in and share this land.

We call on the government of Israel to take all possible measures to fulfill its obligations in accordance with international law and to protect cultural heritage sites and cultural properties in Gaza. We remind all parties that using cultural sites for military purposes can be considered a war crime under international law.

We also call on the diplomatic and international community as a whole to work towards a ceasefire and an end to hostilities between the parties. The heinous attack on Israelis by the Hamas on October 7th and the subsequent Israeli offensive on Gaza has resulted in unfathomable death and destruction. The devastation of Gaza’s cultural heritage landscape will remain a tragic reminder of this war for generations to come.

Lastly, yesterday’s post by the director of the IAA showed that despite the massive amount of destruction, there are many cultural assets still spread across the Gaza Strip. Therefore, we call on the law enforcement bodies around the world to be on high alert for antiquities originating in Gaza. Wars, especially those which entail the breakdown of governance, almost always result in the theft and trade in stolen antiquities.