Unearthing occupation: Israel's archaeological war on Palestinian cultural heritage

Israel's archaeological war on Palestinian cultural heritage
6 min read
18 March, 2022
In-depth: A new report details how Israel deliberately targeted archaeological sites in Gaza in an effort to erase Palestine's cultural heritage, destroying evidence of Palestinians' historical connection to the land and denying their indigeneity.

Scattered along the unassuming beaches of Gaza, buried under the rubble and destruction of Israel’s bombs, lie several extraordinary archaeological sites dating all the way back to the Iron age. 

Now, a new investigation by the research group Forensic Architecture details how Israel has deliberately targeted archaeological sites in the besieged Gaza strip in a blatant attack on Palestinian cultural heritage.

Over successive bombing campaigns, these sites along Gaza’s coastline, which include a Roman era fountain and an Iron Age rampart, are now facing an “existential threat”. Working with journalists, archaeologists and activists from Gaza and beyond, Forensic Architecture has collated a wide range of evidence to map and reconstruct these sites. It’s being called a pioneering form of “open source archaeology” and has the potential to be a significant tool in the fight against cultural erasure.

Indeed the Israeli regime has long attempted to erase and appropriate Palestinian cultural heritage as part of the Zionist settler colonial project. In order to establish a historical connection to the land and support its narrative of exclusive ownership to the land’s history, which is a crux of Israel's foundational ideology, erasing non Jewish heritage becomes crucial.

"For all communities and national groups, cultural heritage is a tangible and physical link with the past. In its effort to erase a Palestinian past, past and present Israeli regimes have actively sought to disconnect Palestinians from their heritage"

To do this, Israel has resorted to either destroying the existing heritage of Palestinians, or creating an entirely different and exclusive narrative around it.

As Al Haq, a Palestinian human rights NGO, explained in the context of Forensic Architecture’s report, “Targeting cultural heritage is not an empty gesture. Culture constitutes a visible expression of human identity. Depriving a people of their culture is tantamount to emptying them of the very substance that forms the backbone of their right to self-determination, especially in a context of cumulative, interconnected and systemic human rights violations.”

For all communities and national groups, cultural heritage is a tangible and physical link with the past. In its effort to erase a Palestinian past, past and present Israeli regimes have actively sought to disconnect Palestinians from their heritage. Zionist founding father, David Ben Gurion, is famously attributed as having said; “the old (Palestinians) will die and the young will forget”.

However, this has not been the case and Palestinians have rigorously sought to preserve their history despite the furious attempts to negate it.

Palestinian workers excavate newly discovered archaeological sites, including a Roman cemetery containing ornately decorated graves in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, on February 20, 2022. [Getty]
Palestinian workers excavate newly discovered archaeological sites, including a Roman cemetery containing ornately decorated graves in Beit Lahia in the northern Gaza Strip, on February 20, 2022. [Getty]

In this war against Palestinian cultural heritage, archaeology has played a key role. Palestinian sites have been illegally excavated by Israeli archaeologists, and many artefacts have been looted and hidden away in Israeli institutions. In 1948 when the Zionist project established the State of Israel, archaeologists set to work immediately to find historical “proof” of a Jewish presence in the land.

In doing so, they would often destroy layers of archaeological ruins to find Jewish era ruins. Dr Mahmoud Hawari, Palestinian Archaeologist and former Director of the Palestine Museum, explained that Israel’s weaponisaton of archaeology to create an invented “biblical” biased narrative centred on “Jewish historical claims” helps to further justify its settler-colonial project.

However, this not only contradicts the ethics of archaeological practice, which emphasises preservation of history, but also actively ignoring Palestine’s diverse multi-faceted history, and the historical presence of indigenous Palestinian people. Ultimately, this rewriting of history serves Israel’s plan to carry out a gradual ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, as well as appropriating their history and cultural heritage, Dr Hawari explained.

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In 1967, when Israel first occupied the West Bank and Gaza, the practice of manipulating archaeology to rewrite the past was extended into these occupied Palestinians territories. In particular, Israel began aggressively excavating the old city of Jerusalem.

More recently, Israel has been conducting excavations in the area under the Dome of the Rock compound, which also houses the Al Aqsa Mosque, an integral part of the UNESCO heritage site of the Old City in Jerusalem. These excavations were heavily condemned by the UN cultural body and resulted in a UNESCO resolution criticising Israel for its overall policies towards the compound.

Many of these “archaeological projects” are sponsored by fanatical right-wing Israeli settler organisations such as El Ad, who has long had a monopoly over archaeological sites in Jerusalem, particularly in the Palestinian neighbourhood of Silwan.

Through the appropriation of Palestinian land, destruction of Palestinian homes, and erase of Palestinian archaeology, El Ad has been working to establish irrefutably the historical Jewish presence in order to support the narrative of millennial Jewish ownership over Jerusalem whilst simultaneously erasing Palestinian existence both from the past and in the present.

"In the context of Gaza, where the population is subjected to frequent bombardments and dire living conditions, the discussion of heritage sites may seem frivolous. Yet recognising Israel’s war on Palestinian cultural heritage as part and parcel of the overall system of oppression is crucial"

Further, through the use of biblical narratives the assertion is made that this exclusive ownership is divinely mandated, a narrative that is eagerly supported by Christian Zionists- a group which forms the bedrock of US support for the Israeli regime.

Meanwhile in Gaza, where before the siege the Israeli regime illegally excavated and appropriated, it now simply has a policy of destruction. Forensic Architecture explained to The New Arab that, "Archaeology is yet another casualty of Israeli colonial violence towards Palestinians.

In Gaza, Israeli attacks continue to impact the daily life, identity and practices of Palestinians and to deny them their right to their cultural heritage.”

This is why Forensic Architecture’s pioneering “open source” archaeology is so important. It allows for archaeological research to continue in the context of a siege, where access is restricted and where sites are consistently placed at risk of destruction by Israeli bombardment.

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This investigation has also been important in supporting legal avenues against Israel’s differential treatment of archaeology and Palestinian cultural heritage. In a report, Al Haq explains how this is a fundamental aspect of the Israeli apartheid regime and that these attacks amount to war crimes.

Both Forensic Architecture and Al Haq have jointly called on the Prosecutor of the ICC to “consider this destruction as amounting to war crimes, and to evaluate their potential contribution to apartheid as a crime against humanity under the Rome Statute.”

In the context of Gaza, where the population is subjected to frequent bombardments and dire living conditions, the discussion of heritage sites may seem frivolous. Yet recognising Israel’s war on Palestinian cultural heritage as part and parcel of the overall system of oppression is crucial.

Israel’s settler colonial project isn’t simply about removing Palestinians from the present by forcing them out of their homes and creating unliveable living circumstances. It is also about erasing them from the history of the land of historic Palestine in an effort to deny them any claims to sovereignty and indigeneity.

Yara Hawari is the Palestine Policy Fellow of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @yarahawari