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The melancholy of the Palestinians: a heritage destroyed

Gaza's historical sites are under threat of destruction, but courageous young Gazan activists, archaeologists and historians are fighting to protect their heritage.

A view of St. Helarion in Gaza. Picture by Ahmed Al Nabris, Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).On a summer day, when I started my secondary school in Gaza, my father told me a story. The story goes, when Israel occupied Egyptian Sinai, they brought a huge drill with hundreds of stones that have ancient Hebrew calligraphy on them. They dag and buried them secretly in the desert. "They did that so the next generations will find them and say that this land belongs to Israel," he explained.

Being a teenager, I listened sparingly. Even though I could not verify my dad's story, I do have oral evidence from security officers in Gaza who worked in this field from 1994 until 2007. They claim that Israel, in collaboration with Palestinians used to seize and steal Gaza's antiquities. I have seen the Taliban destroying Bamiyan Buddhas, I have witnessed the time when ISIS destroyed Palmyra, I have seen the looting and destruction of Iraqi antiquities, and cried in front of Ishtar's gate in Berlin, but never did I expect to witness the elimination of one of the most ancient Canaanite cities at the hands of Palestinians.

The first documented human settlements in the Gaza Strip date back to 6000 years ago. This part of the world has been part of the Iron, Bronze, Stone, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Ottoman, and Modern ages, it has been under endless attacks that have targeted its antiquities and tangible heritage.

These attacks were not limited to the Israeli occupation which established a systematic campaign to evacuate Gaza from its antiquities. For instance, as Israeli Army Chief, Moche Dayan stole hundreds of antiquities from the Gaza Strip and Sinai. Archeologists have denounced Dayan's unethical and criminal behavior that lead to a diplomatic crisis between Egypt and Israel.

In 2015, after much work, Saada foundation in Lebanon were able to buy (and bring back to the Middle East) dozens of Palestinian antiquities that Moche Dayan had sent as gifts to his friends in Europe and North America.

Tal al-Sakan is just one of the many examples of Palestinian archaeological sites that are in danger

However, the destruction, smuggling, and embezzlement of the Palestinian heritage have not been only committed by the Israeli authorities. Some Palestinians have also been involved in these illegal and shameful activities.

Most recently, the Hamas government and members have destroyed Tal al-Sakan, a 4500 years old site. Tal al-Sakan is just one of the many examples of Palestinian archaeological sites that are in danger.

In 2015, and as a result of Hamas's financial crisis, Hamas's de facto government decided to allocate land as a reward for their employees. These are public lands. In other words, they provided loyal members with shares of land in a move that reveals malfeasance and nepotism by the rulers of the Gaza Strip. High-rank employees preferred lands located in a south Gaza suburb considered an extension of Gaza city, or the ‘new Gaza’ hosting new campuses of four main universities. In this area the prices of land are high.

That land was Tal Al Sakan, one of the most ancient sites in Gaza. Palestinian, French and Swedish archeologists discovered the site in 1998 and believed it to be a rare 4500 years old Bronze age settlement and later a Canaanite city that explains the relation between ancient Egypt and the Levantine region.

Despite the courageous protests by activists, archeologists, and historians in the Gaza strip the bulldozing of the site continued, until dozens of Gazans protested physically on the site. A high-rank decision from the PA minister of tourism was made and almost blocked the national reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.

Hamas's high-rank employees intimidated activists. The anger of Gaza's youth is an indication of the rift that is growing between Hamas’ doctrine and that led by young activists. The week long standoff this October showed the victory of history over ignorance.

But Tal al-Sakan is not the only site, another site that has been destroyed is Tal Al-Ajjul. This is the site of the ancient Gaza city, 4200 years old. It was an extension to the commercial port between Asia and Africa during the 1200s BC. It has been named the second oldest Canaanite city after Tal Al-Sakan. Tall al-Ajjul acquired its name from a golden calf. In 1933, British archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie discovered gold jewelry, ornamental objects, palaces and horse stables there. The site was razed by a Gazan family in order to build a house after the Swedish archeologist Peter Fischer asked the family to excavate the site. Their fear that the government in Gaza would take the land from them urged them to destroy an ancient site.

In 2013, a bronze statue of Apollo, the ancient Greek god of light and music, miraculously surfaced in Gaza. A fisherman, Jawdat Abu Grab, found the statue while fishing in the Deir Al Balah area. A few days later, the statue disappeared, forever. According to Hamas’s department of antiquities, “the statute has been taken by Hamas’s police” in 2013 and never been seen afterwards. A few weeks later, the statue briefly appeared on eBay with a $500,000 price tag. Some anonymous sources informed the writer that one of Hamas’ military wing leaders seized the statue and claimed it has been destroyed during the 2014 Gaza war.

Another site suffering from negligence is Tal Um Amer or St. Hilarion. The site is characterized by five successive churches, bath and sanctuary complexes, geometric mosaics, and an expansive crypt. This Christian monastery was one of the largest in the Middle East. It is now used sometimes by neighbors as dumping site. Moreover, the private land surrounding the site has been completely razed and new private homes and buildings have risen up. This implies that other historical and ancient monuments must have been destroyed considering the very negligible distance between St. Hilarion and the cement buildings.

In 2016, a Byzantine church was found while construction workers were operating in the site. The findings include segments of marble pillars with ornate Corinthian capitals and a foundation stone bearing a Greek symbol for Christ. Fifteen pieces have been uncovered. However, the discoveries were left on the street in Gaza for some time. No further excavations were done and no archeologists were engaged in the process. The church and its history have been dumped in exchange for money to Gaza’s de facto government.

Where are the findings of many excavations, coins, manuscripts and other materials?

In 2013, Hamas’s military wing bulldozed part of of the ancient Gaza Anthedon Harbour in Northern Gaza. The harbour dates back over 3,000 years to the Mycenaean era, and is considered one of the most important sites in the Middle East, in addition to being the oldest harbour in Gaza. In 2012, UNESCO designated the harbour as an international heritage site. Moreover, Hamas’ de facto police have arrested a Palestinian who looted and hid 75 envelops with ancient manuscripts and antiquities. However, informal sources claimed that Hamas’s police raided the house to seize the antiquities without explaining where they will be kept. Since then, the manuscripts and the antiquities have vanished.

In 2015, while Gaza’s municipality workers in Shejaia were installing pipelines, they discovered hundreds of ancient golden and silver coins in pottery vessels. The vessels were taken by Gaza’s police, collecting the coins from Shejaia residents door-to-door. Yet, no one explained where the coins and vessels are.

The list continues with much evidence that shows how reckless Hamas and its de-facto government are towards antiquities and historical sites. It also raises the questions about where the findings of many excavations, coins, manuscripts and other materials are. Are they still in Gaza or have they been sold and smuggled by people in power in the Hamas government or somewhere else?

Despite that, there are hopes in the besieged Gaza. While the Israeli army and its collaborators were stealing Gaza antiquities, other Gazans were digging, excavating, and protecting their history. There are examples of people who dedicated their lives to history and antiquities. Nafez Abed from Shati camp is one of them. His precision and professionalism in copying and restoring ancient artifacts was mastered during his times in Israeli jails. Waleed Al-Aqqda, from the south of Gaza collected around 5,000 antiquities dating back to the Bronze, Stone, Roman, Byzantine and Modern ages. Marwan Shahwan from Khanyouis has turned his basement into an archeological museum that has more than 10,000 pieces that he has collected during the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip.

What we are observing now in the Gaza Strip reveals the role of social media and those who are in forced or voluntary exile as well as the people of Gaza, who have moved quickly and mobilized to protect their heritage. If they were not able to win against the political divisions they were able to reject that their history and antiquities be another victim of the political ravening of Hamas. Their efforts should be institutionalized and empowered by legal instruments that punish and reward. Gaza's youth are the real combatants who will protect their heritage and their society from extremism. A nation that does not protect its heritage and antiquities, allows the erasure of its history, and destroys its own rights to own that land.

About the author

Abdalhadi Alijla is a Palestinian-Swedish academic and researcher. He is  the executive director of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies Canada (IMESC). He serves as the regional manager for Gulf countries at Varieties of Democracy Institute, Gothenburg University, Sweden. He has a PhD in Political Studies from Milano University, and MA in Public Policy from Zeppelin University.


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