Cultural heritage sites not spared in Israel's war on Gaza

Israel has destroyed historic landmarks with deep religious and cultural significance that helped Gaza foster its unique sense of place and identity

This picture taken on January 5, 2024, shows Gaza City's Omari Mosque, the oldest mosque in Gaza, damaged in Israeli bombardment.
This picture taken on January 5, 2024, shows Gaza City's Omari Mosque, the oldest mosque in Gaza, damaged in Israeli bombardment.

Cultural heritage sites not spared in Israel's war on Gaza

At the end of January, Israel’s war on Gaza was estimated to have reduced up to 60% of Gaza's properties to rubble. Recent estimates put the figure at around 80%.

Four of every five buildings that stood in September are now smashed wrecks. The UN estimates that there are 23 million tonnes of debris in Gaza that will take 14 years to clear.

In many respects, it is now a wasteland of broken concrete and dust. The terrible sense of physical devastation pales against the horror of the death toll.

Yet in the ashes lies yet another threat to Palestinians: the crumbling of Gaza’s rich historical and cultural heritage that gives the people their identity and history.

From the Omari Mosque to the Unknown Soldier Square, so many special places have been damaged or destroyed by all this relentless violence.

Heritage and memory

A sense of place is important for people all over the world. It serves as a vital backdrop to life and informs the memories and narratives that shape the experience of individuals, families, and societies.

Special sites play into that sense of a shared culture and a long past. They are cherished and protected as a means to understand the lived experience of ancestors. Gaza, in that sense, is no different.

Yet the scale of the damage inflicted by Israel puts Gaza in a league of its own when it comes to the desecration of collective memory and meaning.

Steeped in Arab heritage, it boasted numerous historical and archaeological treasures, imbued with religious, cultural, or historical significance. Many of these sites have been hit by significant physical damage.

Gaza is so badly damaged that even its main roads have been destroyed. Hardly a single street has been spared.

A Palestinian man walks with his two children on 10 April 2024 through the courtyard of the historic Omari Mosque in Gaza City.

Omari Mosque

The Omari Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Gaza, was one of Gaza's main landmarks. Built 1,500 years ago and named after Caliph Omar ibn al-Khattab, it was the largest and oldest mosque in Gaza, located east of Gaza City. 

It was once a temple, then a church, then a mosque. It had been attacked, built, and/or managed by the Philistines, Byzantines, Arabs of the Rashidun Caliphate, Crusaders, Ayyubids, Mamluks, Mongols, Ottomans, and British, to name but a few.

It stood out for its aesthetics and architecture, but on 7 December 2023, an Israeli air strike left large parts of this historic mosque structurally destroyed and its minaret partially collapsed.

Coincidentally, almost exactly 1,000 years earlier, on 5 December 1033, an earthquake caused the pinnacle of the mosque's Mamluk minaret to collapse.

It is a huge loss. Visitors to the Omari Mosque would often cite a deep sense of awe mixed with a curious sense of familiarity. Many felt as if they were "coming home".

During my numerous visits to the Omari Mosque, I too sensed an inner peace and felt at one with humanity, nature, and the ancient stones of the building itself.

It carried within its bounds a profound sense of place and connection with the people of the city. Its walls felt timeless, letting visitors travel back centuries. Now, this bridge between eras, peoples, and even faiths has been brutally broken.

Greek Orthodox Archbishop Alexios of Tiberias blesses Christian worshippers during the Palm Sunday service outside the Greek Orthodox Church of St Porphyrius on 28 April 2024.

Church of St. Porphyrius

In the Zeitoun area east of Gaza City, the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Porphyrius was bombed by the Israelis in October 2023, killing up to 18 people and causing the collapse of at least one building.

It had always served as a shelter for Palestinians during previous conflicts. They felt safe within its walls, as they should have.

When I visited, I was overcome by a profound sense of awe and peaceful stillness. Its walls were a 200-metre panorama of paintings, their inscriptions, decorations, and icons bearing witness to the sweep of history that formed Gaza.

The foundational text of the church, eight lines of ancient Greek etched into marble, always captivated me as I entered. Encircled by golden lines against ancient artistic imagery, the inscription seemed timeless, inviting contemplation and reverence.

A vessel of solace and hope, this venerable edifice has roots dating back to the 5th century AD, but a big portion of its beauty was obliterated by the Israelis, leaving it inaccessible for prayer and devoid of the peace it once offered.

People have deep spiritual attachments to places of worship, so they should be protected from attack as cultural property under international humanitarian law.

This protection is included in the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the event of Armed Conflicts, Additional Protocol I and II to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and the Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The scale of the damage inflicted by Israel puts Gaza in a league of its own when it comes to the desecration of collective memory and meaning.

Cultural Centre

Western Gaza's Rashad Shawa Cultural Centre, which belonged to the Gaza municipality, was also destroyed in the war. It was one of the largest and most beautiful cultural centres in the Gaza Strip.

Established in 1988, it played host to writers and poets, workshops, exhibitions, festivals, film screenings, children's outings, plays, puppet shows, and concerts. Nelson Mandela, Jacques Chirac, and Bill Clinton all gave speeches here.

Culture thrived within its walls. It offered hope and countered the cultural stagnation of occupation. With thousands of books, its library also offered education and escape. Its print centre even served as an income generator.

With its triangular roof and large stained-glass panels, it was nominated for the Aga Khan Award for its architectural design. In the middle of this vital area in Gaza, it stood out for its beauty and familiarity.

At the end of November 2023, Israel bombed the centre, completely destroying it. With it, they destroyed the dreams and memories of almost every creative in Gaza.

Omar El-Qattaa/AFP
A Palestinian man rides his bicycle past the destroyed Rashad Shawa Cultural Centre (background) in Gaza City's Rimal district, following weeks of Israeli bombardment on November 24, 2023.

Unknown Soldier Square

The Unknown Soldier Square in Rimal, in the middle of Gaza City, near the Rashad Shawa Centre, was also blown up by the Israelis, who then demolished it. They even blew up the trees.

I have memories of this place since it was first built. I remember seeing horses there in the 1980s, and I vividly remember the historic return of Yasser Arafat to Gaza in 1994.

This moment is etched into the collective consciousness of all who witnessed it, a huge crowd welcoming him back on a momentous day.

The Unknown Soldier Square served as a popular park and a haven for the poor in Gaza, a sanctuary for those who could not frequent cafes. Children played, parents gathered, and hot and cold beverages were served at affordable prices.

Intellectuals found solace here. Friends chose to meet here. Families promenaded here in the evenings. It bustled with visitors, night and day. At its heart stood the white Unknown Soldier Monument, a symbol of the Palestinian revolution.

It was rebuilt by the Palestinian Authority in 2000, after being pulled down by Israeli soldiers in 1967, but was removed again by religious extremists after Hamas took over, under the pretext that the statue violated prohibitions of Islamic law.  

This city square, with or without its statue, was for Gazans' public, cultural, and artistic activities. It was where rallies and marches were held. Now it is a stretch of brown dirt. Trees are uprooted and the playground just a tangle of metal.

Gaza's municipal authorities said Israeli forces used bulldozers here as part of a "deliberate campaign" to target landmarks that are now lost amidst the debris.

Places of worship should be protected from attack as cultural property under international humanitarian law.

Rubble as monument

In the few residential blocks that still stand, residents have returned to an apocalyptic scene of devastation, disorientation, and despair. Many whose homes still stand simply cannot find them because they do not recognise anything.

Gaza's most visible monument is now the wreckage and rubble itself. Densely packed blocks and houses that once connected people have been laid waste.

Its narrow streets once wove an intricate web, binding the city and its people. Those bonds have always been strong. Gazans are finely tuned into their surroundings.

Palestinians are no strangers to exile. Forced to flee, they experience a sense of detachment when separated from their homeland. Yet the sheer scale of destruction in Gaza is fostering a similar sense even for those who remain.

It is a continuation of the Nakba (Catastrophe) inflicted by the occupation. It feels like we are all displaced.

Gazans define their home with a sense of spirituality deeply connected to their innermost selves. This spirituality is not faith-specific but rooted in heritage. It adds depth to this unique sense of place.

For them, the fabric of their city is more than bricks and mortar. It is a means of storing their history, a way of telling the stories that make them who they are.

Most stories have happy endings. Most...

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