“By ‘genocide’ we mean the destruction of a nation or of an ethnic group.”
So wrote Raphael Lemkin in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe (1944). He coined the term, “genocide” and understood it to mean not just the physical annihilation of people but the destruction of their history, their culture, the memory of their nation. It is undeniable that, amidst all the human suffering of Palestinians at the hands of the IDF, the cultural genocide of Palestine is being ruthlessly pursued.
Israel is not just bombing and bulldozing homes, hospitals and the rest of the infrastructure in order to drive out the Palestinian people and make way for Israeli settlers. They are trying to erase all memory of Palestine.
In the first hundred days of the war on Gaza, Israel destroyed nearly 200 heritage sites representing 3,500 years of history. Anthedon Harbour was a UNESCO World Heritage site that had survived in a virtually undisturbed state since 800BCE until Israel destroyed it and a neighbouring refugee camp in the north west of Gaza.
Gaza’s Great Omari Mosque, which dates back over 1000 years, was destroyed in an Israeli air strike on 8th December. It was home to a collection of rare and ancient manuscripts that are probably lost forever. More than 100 mosques have been destroyed so far, many of them over 1,000 years old.
One of the oldest Christian churches in the world, the Church of St Porphyrius (425CE), has been bombed. The Byzantine Church of Jabalia (444CE) was destroyed in an air strike and the Monastery of St. Hilarion (circa 340CE) has been damaged.
The fate of many archaeological treasures and heritage sites is still unknown, as it is impossible to visit them while the war on Gaza rages. But it it is not only heritage sites that are under attack. Museums, libraries, universities have all been destroyed. When Israel was telling Palestinians to flee south to Rafah and Khan Younis at the start of the war, the Rafah Museum was completely destroyed in an airstrike on 11th October. Khan Younis Museum, whose collection of 3000 artefacts dated back to the Bronze Age, has also been flattened.
All of Gaza’s universities have been destroyed, and libraries, cultural centres and bookshops like Samir Mansour’s community bookshop, home to the Gazan Poets Society, which was also bombed by Israel in 2021, have come under attack.
While some of these attacks might be explained as collateral damage in a war zone, many are evidence of Israeli war crimes. The air strike may have been a mistake. But the bulldozers that destroyed the site afterwards are evidence of intent. The 1954 Hague Convention, agreed to by both Palestinians and Israelis, is supposed to safeguard heritage sites. But wiping out a country’s cultural capital and destroying its sense of history has always been a central strategy in wars of conquest. Although few have pursued it to the extent of Israel in Gaza.
And the liberal democracies that raged against the attack on Ukrainian language and culture as evidenced by the looting of museums in Kherson and the destruction of libraries by Russia have failed to condemn Israel for its even more egregious actions.
Some of the ancient books and manuscripts have been previously preserved via digitisation by institutions like the British Library in cooperation with the Palestinian authorities in Gaza. But how to preserve the cultural life of a people when the aggressor is determined to annihilate it? In testimony to the courage and resilience of Palestinians everywhere, the archaeologist, Fadel Alatel told Al Jazeera,
“All our heritage sites are clearly marked, yet the Israeli military strikes, the tanks and the bulldozers continue,” the archaeologist said. “But I have faith all this will end. Even if they attempt to destroy our past, we will build back Gaza’s future.”
Life long socialist. Now retired, I have been an office junior, a bookseller, a docker and a teacher. I write a lot and read a lot more. Committed member of the Society of Authors, English PEN and the National Education Union. Never voting Labour again.