Cultural genocide in Gaza

Summary: as the death and destruction wrought on Gaza by the IDF continues unchecked few have given thought to the concomitant erasure of cultural history that Israel is systematically carrying out in the Strip.

Joe Biden’s red line has not been crossed. So said John Kirby the National Security Council spokesperson on Wednesday as Israel continues its offensive into Rafah, one that on 26 May saw the killing of at least 45 civilians sheltering in an Israeli-declared ‘safe zone’. Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “tragic mishap” while extremist supporters of his National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir took to social media to celebrate “the central bonfire in Rafah.”

As the atrocities pile up one upon the other day after day after day a sort of numbness sets in, a dangerous phenomenon that allows, for example, a red line to disappear in the haze of yet another Israeli missile strike.

Joe Biden was the vice-president in 2012 when another red line vanished, that time the use of chemical weapons by Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator.

Here in the UK as the election campaign unrolls, the government of Rishi Sunak has studiously avoided speaking of red lines with the Foreign Secretary going only as far as to urge the IDF to carry out a “swift, comprehensive & transparent” investigation into Sunday’s attack. That prompted the UK head of Amnesty to comment “You’d have to be totally detached from reality to expect that the IDF will adequately investigate Sunday’s attack.”

Keir Starmer said he was “horrified” by the attack and renewed his call for a ceasefire but the Labour Party seemed more concerned with sending out the message that the alleged anti-Semitism of the party under Jeremy Corbyn was history. Starmer refused to say if the first Black woman elected to parliament, Diane Abbott, would be allowed to run as a Labour candidate and on Wednesday evening the party deselected a candidate for liking a tweet that was apparently displaying anti-Semitism.

Corbyn was booted out of Labour last week after he announced he was standing as an Independent in his North Islington riding. (A year ago Labour’s National Executive banned him from running for the party.)

As the Rafah offensive continues and with a senior advisor to Netanyahu announcing that the war will continue for “at least another seven months” a little noted aspect of the Israeli campaign has been the systematic destruction of the cultural history of Gaza.

In March the board of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) an academic organisation representing over 500 institutions released a statement that decried the “accelerating scale of genocidal violence being inflicted on the Palestinian population of Gaza” while noting “the concomitant cultural genocide that is the result of the wanton destruction of the built environment and civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip.”

The statement quoted an earlier report by the Arab Regional Group at the International Council of Monuments (ICOMOS) that noted as of 9 January “more than 200 of the 325 registered sites in Gaza considered of national or global historic, archaeological, natural, religious and humanitarian importance have been destroyed or severely damaged by the Israeli military.”

Cultural genocide in Gaza
The Israeli occupation destroyed the central archive of Gaza municipality containing thousands of documents, many more than a hundred years old [photo credit: Birzeit University]
The MESA statement notes that among the many cultural sites destroyed or severely damaged are over three hundred mosques and four churches some amongst the oldest in the world. Ten museums have been destroyed together with nineteen cultural centres, five public libraries and archives, four universities and their libraries, six publishing houses and three media and artistic production companies.

Traditional markets have been razed to the ground, archaeological sites, including the Roman necropolis (Ard al-Moharbeen) in northern Gaza despoiled and cemeteries desecrated.

Among those cemeteries are two under the authority of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) one in Gaza City and the other in Zuwaidah.

Arab Digest asked the CWGC for information on the cemeteries and the fate of its employees maintaining them. We were referred to a statement issued on 9 May which announced that all its workers and their immediate families had been safely removed to Egypt. The statement added:

We are aware that both cemeteries have suffered damage, but the extent is currently unknown. We will, however, restore those sites to a befitting standard as and when circumstances allow.

MESA notes that the cultural destruction ongoing in Gaza violates Article 53 of the Fourth Geneva Convention prohibiting the destruction of property by an Occupying Power; the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, ratified by Israel; Article 6 of the 1972 International Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage; the ICRC’s Rule 38 on customary rules of international law (IHL) which states that parties to a conflict “must respect cultural property.”

Embedded in the MESA statement is a paragraph that deserves to be quoted in full:

The current multipronged attacks against Gaza appear calculated to achieve nothing less than the total erasure of the Palestinians and their history from this small coastal strip. Horrendous in its nature and scope, this war is also just the most recent, if also most deadly, episode of a hundred-year-long policy, actively abetted and openly supported by the United States, along with a succession of other Western powers, to facilitate the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland, erase their material and cultural claims to it and by extension their historical memory, and indeed deny their existence as a people. In short, Israel is engaging in cultural genocide against the Palestinian people with the active support of its American and European allies.

A question then to our governments (and governments in waiting). Does your unwavering support for Israel include cultural genocide? Or is that a red line too far?

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