Emek Shaveh’s Response to the Destruction of the al-Omari Mosque in Gaza and other Heritage Sites

Since the 7th of October massacre by Hamas of Israeli communities near the border, and the ensuing bombardment of Gaza by the IDF we have been following the war with a heavy heart and great concern. Clearly the loss of life on both sides and the depths of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, along with the growing violence, mass arrests and tensions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem take precedence in these times over concern for heritage sites.

However, we view heritage sites as inseparable from their contemporary human context. Sites, buildings, monuments, museums and archives embody deep cultural memory and are an important component in the constitution of personal and collective identities — the continuity between past, present and future. Unfortunately, in this long and grueling conflict, both Israel and the Palestinians have used cultural heritage as a means to erase material culture associated with the other side and to claim exclusive rights to the land. In Israel in Kibbutz Be’eri a gallery was completely burnt down in the attack on October 7th. Later that month, a museum in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai was partially destroyed by a rocket.

In Gaza it appears that scores of ancient sites, historic monuments, museums and archives have been damaged or destroyed since the start of the war. The devastation is widespread. Most notably, last Friday, the 8th of December, the local and international media widely reported the destruction of the al-Omari Mosque (also known as the “the Great Mosque”) in the Old City of Gaza. Video of the destruction reveals heavy damage to the oldest mosque in Gaza and one of the most important historic sites in the region and to the people of Gaza. The IDF spokesperson told the Israeli media that the “target of the attack was terrorist infrastructure which included a tunnel shaft, a tunnel and Hamas terrorists.” The spokesperson added that “its actions are in accordance with international law.”

Left: The al-Omari (Great) Mosque of Gaza prior to the attack. More than any other structure, it embodies the long and varied history of the city (Source: Wikipedia).
Right: The al-Omari (Great) Mosque after the destruction last week (Source: Telegram Gaza Now).

The al-Omari Mosque embodies the long history of Gaza perhaps more than any other historic monument. According to local tradition, the 5th century Byzantine church that predated the mosque was built on the site of a Philistine temple to the God Dagan. In the 7th century it was rebuilt as a mosque, and during the Crusader period became a church again. The structure standing until Friday was a Mamluk era building which had been renovated during the Ottoman period, then partially destroyed in a British artillery bombardment during World War I and subsequently restored.

There are hundreds of archaeological sites, historic monuments, and cultural properties in Gaza. Some of the most renowned are clustered in the Old City area. We have been monitoring the situation as best as possible from the beginning of the war. During this time, multiple reports of damage to ancient sites, museums, monuments, and historic buildings have emerged. At the beginning of November several reports by international organizations were published claiming heavy damage to over hundred sites in Gaza. We know that some of the information contained in these reports was inaccurate. It is obviously very challenging under the circumstances to gauge a full picture of the damage. The pause in fighting, between November 24th and December 1st, has aided in carifying the status of some of the sites (see below). Emek Shaveh is leading a task group who are following the developments and plan to publish the findings in due course.

Beyond the destruction of the al-Omari Mosque last week, on October 20th, it was widely reported that an Israeli airstrike hit a building the previous day within the area of the Greek Orthodox Porphyrius Church compound in Gaza’s Old City. Eighteen people died in the attack when the building they had been sheltering in collapsed on top of them. There were also reports of damage to the facade of the historic structure. The Greek Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem issued a strongly worded condemnation of  the attack. The IDF admitted it had damaged the church wall in a blast aimed at a nearby Hamas launching facility and denied intentionally targeting the site.

On the 28th November, the Art Newspaper quoted Jehad Yassin director of the Department of Museums and Excavations at the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities as saying that the recently discovered Roman necropolis has been almost completely destroyed by the bombardment. Yassin also mentioned that several important museums have been damaged or destroyed including the Rafah Museum, al Qarara cultural museum and Deir al Balah museum, a statement that has been confirmed by ICOM-Arab. Yassin also mentioned Gaza’s historic Anthedon Harbour (on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites) as having been impacted by the bombardment. Reports of extensive prior destruction to the Anthedon Harbour, by the Hamas, as part of the work to construct a military training camp have emerged as early as 2013.

Another important site which according to reports has been destroyed just last week is Gaza’s Central Archives.

International Law on Heritage Sites
UNESCO defines cultural heritage as a ‘legacy of physical artefacts and intangible attributes of a group or society that are inherited from past generations, maintained in the present and bestowed for the benefit of future generations’. It follows that a widespread destruction of heritage sites constitutes an attack on the very identity and sense of belonging of a people to the place they call home.

The main legal framework for the protection of cultural property during war is the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict which underscores the obligation of member states to respect and safeguard cultural assets during conflict. The 1954 Hague convention emphasizes the importance of cultural heritage sites to humanity (“damage to the cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind”) and recognizes the destruction of cultural heritage “weakens the foundations of communities, lasting peace and prospects of reconciliation.”  The Convention has two accompanying protocols from 1954 and 1999. The State of Israel is a signatory to the first protocol only. The Palestinians joined the Convention and the two protocols accompanying it in 2012 through UNESCO.

The Second Protocol introduced the notion of ‘enhanced protection’, which encompasses more categories of properties that may be eligible for such protection, and provides immunity to the (protected) property which meet the following three criteria: (1) the cultural heritage is of greatest importance to humanity; (2) it is protected by adequate domestic legal measures that recognise its exceptional value; and (3) it is not used for military purposes or to shield military sites. Article 7 of the Second Protocol states that the parties must “refrain from deciding to launch any attack which may be expected to cause incidental damage to cultural property protected under Article 4 of the Convention which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”

International human rights law includes laws for protection of culture, which are enshrined in the UNESCO conventions. The most relevant of these is the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage of 1972 which has been signed by Israel and the Palestinians. It reflects a universal obligation by a state to identify, protect, preserve, and display heritage, cultural and natural assets within the country and to avoid damage to heritage, and cultural and natural sites beyond its borders, in recognition of the value of heritage for humanity as a whole. The Rome Statute of 1998, gives the International Criminal Court (ICC) jurisdiction over crimes against or affecting cultural heritage. It complements international human rights law and international humanitarian law and prohibits “Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, [and] historic monuments … provided they are not military objectives.”

Emek Shaveh’s response:
The loss of heritage sites in Gaza such as the Great al-Omari Mosque is first of all a great loss for the people of Gaza and the Palestinian people, but it is also a loss for all people who live in and share this land. When the war ends, the scant remains of the al-Omari Mosque will stand as a symbol for the utter devastation of the recent chapter in Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Perhaps we can take hope in the knowledge that the history of this site also contains within it the narrative that destruction was followed by reconstruction and rehabilitation. Like in the past, the al-Omari Mosque will hopefully be rebuilt one day. Let us hope that by this time, the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships who will be in place will have replaced the ethos of war with one that values the lives and cultures of both peoples, and see the heritage sites as a shared legacy, as something to be cultivated, not destroyed.

In the meantime, we call on the government of Israel and the Hamas to take all possible measures to respect international law and protect heritage sites as the assets that belong to all of us, and to the future generations of the people living in this land.  We remind them that using cultural sites for military purposes or as military targets can be considered a war crime under international law and demand that they avoid taking actions that jeopardize the integrity of these assets for the benefit of both our peoples, in the present and the future.