In addition to the enormous human toll of the Israel-Gaza war, reports indicate that a significant part of the Palestinian territory’s cultural heritage, including museums, built heritage and archaeological sites, has been damaged or destroyed in the four months since Israel began its offensive in response to the 7 October Hamas attacks.
International agencies have not been able to conduct on-the-ground visits but are using remote methods to assess the scale of damage.
As of 25 January, Unesco says it has verified damage to 22 sites in Gaza since the war began, including five religious sites, 10 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, two depositories of moveable cultural property, one monument, one museum and three archaeological sites.
Other media reports suggest that the destruction may be more extensive. Earlier this month, several news agencies reported that Israeli forces had demolished the main buildings of Al-Israa University, south of Gaza City, including a museum housing around 3,000 objects of art, archaeological artefacts, specimens, materials and instruments.
A statement from Birzeit University, which is in the West Bank, accused Israeli troops, who had been occupying Al-Israa university buildings as a military base before their demolition, of looting the collection before destroying the museum. The allegations of looting have not been independently verified.
A recent report by Al Jazeera estimated that at least 195 sites of historical importance, some dating back 4,000 years, have been damaged or destroyed in the conflict.
These include Rafah Museum and Al Qarara Museum, both of which were hit by airstrikes in the early days of the war. Rafah Museum was a recently opened museum of Palestinian heritage, while Al Qarara Museum held around 3,000 artefacts dating back to the bronze age.
The Mathaf al-Funduq, a small museum housed in the Mathaf Hotel in northern Gaza, was damaged by shelling in November.
In Gaza City, the Qasr Al-Basha (also known as Pasha Palace), a 13th-century palace that also operates as a museum of antiquities, suffered damage to its walls, courtyard and gardens in a December airstrike.
According to Al Jazeera, many historic mosques have been destroyed, including the Great Omari Mosque, whose library held a collection of 62 rare manuscripts, such as historic copies of the Quran, biographies of Prophet Mohammed and ancient books on philosophy, medicine and Sufi mysticism.
Ancient sites have also been affected. Anthedon Harbour, Gaza’s first known seaport and a Unesco world heritage site, has suffered damage, as has Saint Hilarion, a 4th-century Christian monastery complex.
In December, Unesco granted provisional enhanced protection – the highest level of immunity established by the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict – to Saint Hilarion, which is under the direct protection of the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities.
Ard-al-Moharbeen, a newly discovered Roman necropolis that had been undergoing excavation when the war began, is also thought to be at risk. The site is reportedly in an area where white phosphorous is thought to have been dropped, but damage to the site’s 125 tombs has not yet been assessed.
The destruction of cultural heritage, which Palestinians have accused Israel of targeting deliberately, was cited as evidence in South Africa’s case to the UN International Court of Justice that the state is committing acts of genocide in Gaza. The case asked the court to act urgently “to protect against further, severe and irreparable harm to the rights including the heritage of the Palestinian people under the genocide convention”.
In an interim ruling last week, the UN court ordered Israel to take all measures to ensure its forces do not commit acts of genocide in Gaza, but stopped short of calling for an immediate ceasefire. The court also demanded the immediate release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas.
Human rights groups have accused Israel of violating the Hague Convention and have called on Unesco to do more in response.
The Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor said Unesco must “fulfill its role in dispatching a fact-finding mission to uncover the fate of thousands of archaeological artefacts in the Gaza Strip, assess the conditions of historical sites, and hold Israel accountable for its violations targeting cultural and human heritage in the region”.
Independent organisations such as the UK-based collective Forensic Architecture, which uses architectural mapping to investigate state violence and human rights abuses, are also documenting evidence of the destruction of heritage, which they say is deliberate.
Israel has strongly denied allegations of war crimes, saying it only attacks legitimate military targets and has an “unwavering commitment” to international law.
In a recent statement to the media, a Unesco spokesperson said: “Our organisation calls on all parties involved to strictly adhere to international law. Cultural property should not be targeted or used for military purposes, as it is considered to be civilian infrastructure.”