The Palestinians' vanishing legacy

As well as giving the nod to the reckless redevelopment of ancient historical sites, Hamas and its de-facto government have also been fingered in the disappearance of countless archaeological finds. Gazan activists, archaeologists and historians are now fighting to protect what remains of their Palestinian heritage. By Abdalhadi Alijla

By Abdalhadi Alijla

On a summerʹs day, when I started 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 had 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 barely listened. 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 IS 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.

Layers of ancient civilisation

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 strip Gaza of its heritage. For instance, as head of the Israeli army, Moshe Dayan stole hundreds of antiquities from the Gaza Strip and Sinai. Archaeologists denounced Dayan's unethical and criminal behaviour, which ultimately led to a diplomatic crisis between Egypt and Israel.

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

However, the Israeli authorities are not the only ones who have been involved in the destruction, smuggling and embezzlement of the Palestinian heritage.

Hamas continues where the Israelis left off

Most recently, the Hamas de-facto government and its members destroyed Tal al-Sakan, a 4,500 year-old site. Tal al-Sakan is just one of the many examples of endangered Palestinian archaeological sites.

In 2015 and as a result of Hamas' financial crisis, the de facto government decided to allocate land as a reward for its employees. The land in question was publicly owned. In other words, they provided loyal members with shares of land in a move that confirms malfeasance and nepotism on the part of the rulers of the Gaza Strip.

High-ranking employees preferred land located in a south Gazan suburb considered an extension of Gaza city, or in ʹnew Gazaʹ, where four main universities have built new campuses. In this area land prices are high.

The land granted was Tal Al Sakan, one of the most ancient sites in Gaza. Palestinian, French and Swedish archaeologists discovered the site in 1998 and believed it to be a rare 4,500 year-old Bronze Age settlement and later a Canaanite city that would explain the links between ancient Egypt and the Levantine region.Victory for the activists

Despite fierce protests by activists, archaeologists and historians in the Gaza strip, the bulldozing of the site continued, until dozens of Gazans protested physically on the site. The Palestinian Authorityʹs Minister of Tourism came down in favour of the protesters and for a while, it looked as if the national reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah was in jeopardy.

Hamas's high-ranking employees made every effort to intimidate the activists. The anger of Gaza's youth is one indication of the rift that is growing between Hamasʹ doctrine and the values of this new generation of activists. The week-long standoff in October 2017 was a victory for history over ignorance.

But Tal al-Sakan is not the only site; another site that has been destroyed is Tal Al-Ajjul. This was the site of an ancient Gazan city, 4200 years old. It was an extension of the commercial port, straddling Asia and Africa, during the 1200s BC. It is said to be 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 jewellery, ornamental objects, palaces and stables there. The site was razed by a Gazan family in order to build a house after the Swedish archaeologist Peter Fischer asked the family permission to excavate the site. Their fear that the government in Gaza would take the land from them led them to destroy an ancient site.

Lining somebodyʹs pockets

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 was taken by Hamas’s police" in 2013 and has never been seen since.

A few weeks later, however, the statue briefly appeared on eBay with a $500,000 price tag. Anonymous sources informed the writer that one of the leaders of Hamas’ military wing seized the statue and claimed it had been destroyed during the 2014 Gaza war.

Another site suffering from negligence is Tal Um Amer or St. Hilarion. The site is characterised 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. Local residents occasionally use the area as a dumping ground. Moreover, the private land surrounding the site has been completely razed and new private homes and buildings have been erected. This implies that other historical and ancient monuments must have been destroyed, considering the very negligible distance between St. Hilarion and the new cement structures.

In 2016, a Byzantine church was discovered while builders were working on the site. The finds included segments of marble pillars with ornate Corinthian capitals and a foundation stone bearing a Greek symbol for Christ. Fifteen pieces were uncovered. However, the discoveries were left lying by the roadside. No further excavations were carried out and no archaeologists were engaged in the process. The church and its history was dumped while money flowed into the coffers of Gaza’s de facto government.

Incompetence or calculated criminal behaviour?

In 2013, Hamas’s military wing bulldozed part 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 even arrested a Palestinian who had looted and hidden 75 envelopes containing ancient manuscripts and antiquities. However, informal sources claim that Hamas police raided the house to merely 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 can say where the coins and vessels are.

The list continues with much evidence to indicate just how reckless Hamas and its de-facto government are towards antiquities and historical sites. It also raises questions about what has happened to the finds from many excavations: coins, manuscripts and other materials. Are they still in Gaza, or have they been sold and smuggled by people holding positions of power in the Hamas government or elsewhere?

Civil dedication that requires empowerment

Despite that, there is hope 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 artefacts was mastered during time spent 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 archaeological museum that has more than 10,000 pieces that he collected during the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip.

What we are currently observing in the Gaza Strip reveals the role of social media, those who are in forced or voluntary exile, as well as of the people of Gaza, who have moved quickly and mobilised to protect their heritage. They may not have conquered the political divisions, but they have been able to protect their history and antiquities from falling prey to the political ravenings of Hamas.

Their efforts need to be formalised and empowered by legal instruments designed to both 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 claim to the land.

Abdalhadi Alijla

© Open Democracy 2018

Abdalhadi Alijla is a Palestinian-Swedish academic and researcher. He is the executive director of the Institute of Middle Eastern Studies Canada (IMESC).