A deadly cholera outbreak compounds the misery of war-weary Syrians

Syria’s cholera outbreak has affected the country’s poorest people. (AFP)
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Updated 03 November 2022
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A deadly cholera outbreak compounds the misery of war-weary Syrians

  • WHO believes the current outbreak was caused by the public consumption of polluted water from the Euphrates
  • Syria’s health infrastructure has crumbled as a result of aid embargoes, sanctions and war damage

DUBAI/QAMISHLI, Syria: After more than 11 years of war, destruction, displacement and hunger, Syrians now face a new horror: Cholera. The disease, caused by contaminated food and water, has spread across several parts of the country in recent months and has already claimed lives.

Cholera, which has been largely eliminated in the developed world, causes diarrhea and vomiting, leading to rapid dehydration, which can kill within hours without prompt treatment. The number of cases in Syria has been steadily on the rise since the summer.

The World Health Organization recorded 24,614 infections and 81 deaths between August to the end of October, with Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, Aleppo and Hasakah witnessing the highest concentrations, while camps for the internally displaced have reported 65 cases.




A child suffering from cholera receives treatment at the Al-Kasrah hospital in Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor. (AFP)

Parts of Syria, especially the far-flung governorates, have been facing a water crisis since most water and sewerage infrastructure was destroyed as a result of the civil war that erupted in 2011.

WHO believes the current outbreak was likely caused by the consumption of polluted water from the Euphrates River. Drought, the overpumping of groundwater, and new dams built upstream in Turkey have reduced the once mighty river to a trickle.

Falling water levels have created swamps and stagnant pools along the riverbanks, where raw sewage and other contaminants have collected and festered — the ideal conditions for water- and mosquito-borne diseases to develop.

Jwan Mustafa, co-chair of the Health Board of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), said the first case of cholera was recorded in the region in September, spreading from Deir Ezzor to Raqqa and later to Hasakah further to the north.

“Our recent statistics based on rapid testing confirm 15,000 cases and 30 deaths,” Mustafa told Arab News. “The pollution in the Euphrates River has been the main cause of plenty of prior viruses and diseases. And now cholera.

“People in the area rely on the river to drink, water their plants and for agriculture. The area by the river is considered the breadbasket of northeast Syria. When Hasakah faces a drought, it relies on the Euphrates’ water, which spells disaster for the governorate.

“We’ve started taking measures to attempt to contain the spread of the disease. Groups have been tasked with adding chlorine to water tanks in attempt to purify them.”




Syrians in Deir Ezzor are forced to use contaminated sections of the Euphrates River for drinking water and irrigation. (AFP)

Authorities are encouraging the public in cholera hotspots to first boil their water before drinking, cooking or watering their crops, to treat water tanks, pipes and other vessels with chlorine, and to regularly wash their hands and sanitize surfaces. 

However, given Syria’s crumbling infrastructure, the flight of skilled workers abroad and shortages of basic chemicals and equipment, even these simple preventative measures are difficult to implement. 

“The deterioration of the infrastructure has greatly impacted the health sector,” said Mustafa. “We struggle to contain diseases because we lack the resources and expertise. A simple virus can very easily become an epidemic in the region. We are short on laboratories and medications.”

Syria’s health infrastructure has suffered under a devastating mix of aid embargoes, sanctions and war damage. Throughout the civil war, the regime of Bashar Assad has systematically destroyed hospitals in rebel-held areas in defiance of international humanitarian law.

FASTFACTS

• Some 29 countries have reported cholera outbreaks since January of this year.

• Afghanistan, Pakistan and Haiti are among those affected besides Syria and Lebanon.

• UNICEF urgently needs $40.5 million to expand its emergency cholera response in Syria and Lebanon alone.

• The money will support health, water, hygiene and sanitation, risk communication and community engagement.

Meanwhile, deliveries of foreign aid to areas beyond the regime’s control have been deliberately blocked or diverted.

Since June 2021, when regime ally Russia vetoed a UN Security Council resolution allowing eastern Syria to continue receiving cross-border support via Iraq, all UN aid to the region must first pass through Damascus.

This has resulted in severe shortages of medical supplies, poor coordination between health authorities, and limited testing capacity in eastern Syria.

For the people of Raqqa, the outbreak of cholera is only the latest in a litany of crises they are forced to face alone.




A woman suffering from cholera receives treatment at the Al-Kasrah hospital in Syria's eastern province of Deir Ezzor. (AFP)

“The Syrian regime is not helping. People are already feeling haggard and depressed from the daily struggles brought on by the war,” Ahmad, a community activist in Raqqa who declined to give his full name, told Arab News.

“We know we are in trouble, but we also know help will not come from the Syrian regime. We know aid will not come locally or internationally. People do not care anymore. The cholera doesn’t faze us. We’ve been dying from war, chemical weapons and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We often muse how our lives have become Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s book: ‘Love in the time of cholera,’” he added.




“Cholera doesn’t know borders and lines of control, and spreads along population movements,” said Bertrand Bainvel, UNICEF deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. (Supplied)

In response to the cholera outbreak, Doctors Without Borders, in cooperation with local health officials in Raqqa, has established a local treatment center and two outpatient clinics in the AANES.

However, maintaining adequate food hygiene and access to clean drinking water has become increasingly difficult for most Syrians since the onset of the economic crisis and the currency collapse of 2019, which were compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and the spiraling price of food and fuel since the outbreak of war in Ukraine earlier this year.

According to the World Food Programme, the average price of food items in Syria has risen 532 percent since 2020. As a result, some 12 million people still living in Syria are now considered food insecure.

“Goods have become unattainable,” said Ahmad. “Talk on the street is that death is the best escape. And it will come, if not from cholera or COVID-19, then from hunger.”




A Syrian boy carries a bucket of water at the Sahlah Al-Banat camp for displaced people in the countryside of Raqa, in northern Syria. (AFP)

Conditions in neighboring Lebanon, where millions of Syrians have sought refuge in crowded camps since the outbreak of civil war, are not much better.

Already grappling with its own unprecedented economic crisis, which has thrown 80 percent of its citizens into poverty and left its infrastructure in tatters, Lebanon has also recorded cases of cholera.

Firass Abiad, Lebanon’s health minister, confirmed on Tuesday that the country had recorded 17 cholera deaths and 93 hospitalizations nationwide, including cases in the capital Beirut.

The government is trying to secure 600,000 vaccine doses for the most vulnerable, including prisoners, frontline workers and refugees residing in cramped and often squalid camps.

For most Syrians and Lebanese, who must foot their own medical bills amid rising prices and shattered health infrastructure, the omens are not good.

“I don’t even know where to start. If I get infected I don’t know if I can afford or even have a hospital bed ready for me,” Lina, a Lebanese citizen living in Akkar, a poverty-stricken area of northern Lebanon, told Arab News.

“Life has become unbearably difficult. But, at the end of the day, it’s just another way to die.”


’No longer a shadow war’: Iran says attack on Israel marks strategic shift

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’No longer a shadow war’: Iran says attack on Israel marks strategic shift

  • Israel’s military said it intercepted 99 percent of the aerial threats with the help of the United States and other allies, and that the overnight attack caused only minor damage
  • Israel has killed at least 33,797 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory

TEHRAN: Iran’s missile and drone barrage against Israel was the first act of a tough new strategy, Tehran says, warning arch foe Israel that any future attack will spark “a direct and punishing response.”
This spells a dramatic shift from past years in which the Islamic republic and Israel have fought a shadow war of proxy fights and covert operations across the Middle East and sometimes further afield.
Iran from late Saturday launched hundreds of drones and missiles, including from its own territory, directly at Israel, to retaliate for a deadly April 1 strike on Iran’s consulate in Damascus.
Israel’s military said it intercepted 99 percent of the aerial threats with the help of the United States and other allies, and that the overnight attack caused only minor damage.
Iran said it had dealt “heavy blows” to Israel and hailed the operation as “successful.”
“Iran’s victorious... operation means that the era of strategic patience is over,” the Iranian president’s political deputy, Mohammad Jamshidi wrote on X.
“Now the equation has changed. Targeting Iranian personnel and assets by the regime will be met with a direct and punishing response.”
President Ebrahim Raisi said the operation had “opened a new page” and “taught the Zionist enemy (Israel) a lesson.”
Iran said it acted in self-defense after the Damascus strike levelled the consular annexe of its embassy and killed seven members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), including two generals.
Western governments denounced Iran’s retaliation as “destabilising the region.”
Iran, however, insisted the attack was “limited” and urged Western nations to “appreciate (its) restraint” toward Israel, especially since the outbreak of the Gaza war on October 7.
Regional tensions have soared amid the Israel-Hamas war which has drawn in Iran-backed armed groups in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Several IRGC members, including senior commanders, have been killed in recent months in strikes in Syria which Iran has also blamed on Israel.

Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has frequently called for Israel’s destruction and made support for the Palestinian cause a centerpiece of its foreign policy.
But it had refrained from directly striking Israel until Saturday, an attack on a scale which appeared to catch many in the international community by surprise.
For decades, Iran relied on a network of allied groups to exert its influence in the region and to deter Israel and the United States, according to experts.
A 2020 report by the Washington Institute said that Tehran had adopted a policy of “strategic patience,” which had “served it well since the inception of the Islamic republic in 1979.”
Former moderate president Hassan Rouhani was a staunch defender of the strategy, especially following Washington’s 2018 withdrawal from a landmark nuclear deal, advocating for Tehran not to take immediate countermeasures and taking a longer view.
Even after the 2020 US killing of Qasem Soleimani, an IRGC commander revered in Iran, Tehran gave prior warning to Washington, US sources said, before it launched missiles against two American bases in Iraq, and no soldiers were killed in the attack.
After Saturday’s attack on Israel, Guards chief Hossein Salami also said Iran was “creating a new equation.”
“Should the Zionist regime attack our interests, our assets, our personnel and citizens at any point, we will counterattack it from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he was quoted as saying by local media.
The attack was also hailed as a “historic” success by Iranian media, with the government-run newspaper Iran saying the offensive “has created a new power equation in the region.”
The ultra-conservative daily Javan said the attack was “an experience Iran needed, to know how to act in future battles” and that it would make Israel “think long before (committing) any crime” against Tehran.
The reformist Ham Mihan newspaper said the attack “ended the status quo and broke the rules of the conflict that pitted the two sides against each other for 20 years and pushed the situation into another phase.”
“This is no longer a shadow war,” it said.
 

 


Lebanese officials charge Mossad killed Hamas financier

Mohammed Srour. (X/@HasanDorr)
Updated 12 min 51 sec ago
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Lebanese officials charge Mossad killed Hamas financier

  • A Lebanese judicial official and a security source told AFP that Mossad likely masterminded Sarur’s killing, both speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press

BEIRUT: A Lebanese minister and two senior officials said preliminary findings suggest Israel’s Mossad spy agency was behind the killing of a US-sanctioned Lebanese man accused of sending Iranian money to Hamas.
The body of Mohammad Sarur, 57, was found riddled with bullets in a villa in the Lebanese mountain town of Beit Mery last Tuesday.
Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi told Al-Jadeed TV late Sunday that, “according to the data we have so far, (the killing) was carried out by intelligence services.”
Asked whether he was referring to Mossad, Mawlawi confirmed.
AFP has requested comment from Israeli government officials but has received no response so far.
The US Treasury said in August 2019 that it had sanctioned Sarur for funnelling “tens of millions of dollars” from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards “to Hamas for terrorist attacks originating from the Gaza Strip,” through Lebanon’s Hamas-allied Hezbollah.
The Lebanese group has been exchanging near daily cross-border fire with the Israeli military since October 7 when Hamas launched its unprecedented attack on Israel, triggering the war in Gaza.
A Lebanese judicial official and a security source told AFP that Mossad likely masterminded Sarur’s killing, both speaking on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press.
“The preliminary results of the investigation indicate that the Israeli Mossad was behind the assassination,” the security official told AFP.
Initial findings “suggest the Mossad used Lebanese and Syrian agents to lure Sarur to a villa in Beit Mery,” the official said, adding that they had wiped fingerprints from the crime scene and used silenced weapons.
The judicial official also told AFP that preliminary information pointed to Mossad, but that the probe was ongoing, with investigators collecting evidence “especially from communications data.”
The US Treasury said Sarur “served as a middle-man” for money transfers between the (Revolutionary) Guards and Hamas “and worked with Hezbollah operatives to ensure funds were provided” to Hamas’s armed wing.
Sarur “has an extensive history working at Hezbollah’s sanctioned bank, Bayt Al-Mal,” the Treasury said.
In January 2019, the Lebanese army said it had arrested a suspected Mossad agent over a failed bid to assassinate a Hamas official in the country’s south a year earlier.
In the 1970s, Israel launched a targeted assassination campaign against Palestinian militants in retaliation for the killing of 11 Israelis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, leaving several militants dead in Beirut.
 

 


Israeli military pledges response to Iran attack amid calls for restraint

Updated 6 min 31 sec ago
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Israeli military pledges response to Iran attack amid calls for restraint

  • Iran mounted its attack after the April 1 killing in Damascus of seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers, including two senior commanders
  • Israel has killed at least 33,797 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory

JERUSALEM: Israel’s military chief said on Monday his country would respond to Iran’s weekend missile and drone attack amid calls for restraint by allies anxious to avoid an escalation of conflict in the Middle East.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu summoned his war cabinet for the second time in less than 24 hours to weigh how to react to Iran’s first-ever direct attack on Israel, a government source said.
Israel’s military Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi said the country would respond, but provided no details.
“This launch of so many missiles, cruise missiles, and drones into Israeli territory will be met with a response,” he said at the Nevatim Airbase in southern Israel, which sustained some damage in Saturday night’s attack.

The head of the military, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi (C), attending early on April 14, 2024 a meeting at the Israeli Air Force Operations Center in Kirya in Tel Aviv with the commanding officers of the Israeli Air Force, the operations directorate and the intelligence directorate. (AFP)

Iran’s attack — launched in retaliation for a suspected Israeli airstrike on its embassy compound in Damascus on April 1 — has increased fears of open warfare between Israel and Iran and heightened concerns that violence rooted in the Gaza war is spreading further in the region.
Wary of the dangers, President Joe Biden told Netanyahu the United States will not take part in any Israeli counter-offensive against Iran, officials said on Sunday.
Since the start of the war in Gaza on Oct. 7, clashes have erupted between Israel and Iran-aligned groups in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq. Israel said four of its soldiers were wounded hundreds of meters inside Lebanese territory overnight.
It appeared to be the first such known incident since the Gaza war erupted, although there have been months of exchanges of fire between Israel and Lebanon’s armed group Hezbollah.
“We’re on the edge of the cliff and we have to move away from it,” Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, told Spanish radio station Onda Cero. “We have to step on the brakes and reverse gear.”
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and British Foreign Secretary David Cameron made similar appeals. Washington and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres have also issued calls for restraint.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby declined on Monday to say during a briefing whether Biden urged Netanyahu in talks on Saturday night to exercise restraint in responding to the attack.
“We don’t want to see a war with Iran. We don’t want to see a regional conflict,” said Kirby, adding that it was up to Israel to decide “whether and how they’ll respond.”
Countries including France, Belgium and Germany summoned the Iranian ambassadors. The French foreign ministry said France was working with its partners to de-escalate the situation.
Russia has refrained from criticizing its ally Iran in public over the strikes but expressed concern about the risk of escalation on Monday and also called for restraint.
“Further escalation is in no one’s interests,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

Iran mounted its attack after the April 1 killing in Damascus of seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers, including two senior commanders. Israel neither confirmed nor denied carrying out the attack.
Iran’s retaliatory attack, involving more than 300 missiles and drones, caused modest damage in Israel and wounded a 7-year-old girl. Most were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system and with help from the US, Britain, France and Jordan.
In Gaza itself, where more than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed in the Israeli offensive according to Gaza health ministry figures, Iran’s action has drawn applause.
Israel began its campaign against Hamas after the Palestinian militant group attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages by Israeli tallies.

G7 MULLS SANCTIONS
In Washington, Biden reiterated US commitment to Israel’s security ahead of a meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al-Sudani.
Sudani, speaking alongside Biden, said their views may be divergent about what is happening in the region but they wanted to stop the conflict from expanding.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the Group of Seven major democracies were working on a package of coordinated measures against Iran.
“I spoke to my fellow G7 leaders, we are united in our condemnation of this attack,” Sunak said in parliament.
Italy, which holds the rotating presidency of the G7, said it was open to new sanctions against individuals engaged against Israel.
In an interview with Reuters, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani said new sanctions would need the backing of all the G7. He suggested any new measures would be focused on individuals rather than whole nations.
“If we need to have more sanctions for people clearly engaged against Israel, supporting for example terrorism, supporting Hamas, it is possible to do it,” Tajani said.
Iran’s attack has caused travel disruption, with at least a dozen airlines canceling or rerouting flights, and Europe’s aviation regulator reaffirming advice to airlines to use caution in Israeli and Iranian airspace.
Iraqi Airways announced a resumption of flights between Iraq and Iran on Tuesday.
Israel remained on high alert, but authorities lifted some emergency measures that had included a ban on some school activities and caps on large gatherings.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian said Tehran had informed the United States that the attack on Israel would be limited and for self-defense, and that regional neighbors had been informed of the planned strikes 72 hours in advance.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday, however, that no pre-arranged agreement was made with any country prior to the weekend attack.
Kirby said that Iran did not warn the United States in advance of the attack’s timeframe or targets, calling reports that Tehran had done so “categorically false.”

 


Peace hopes for Yemen must not become collateral damage of other regional conflicts, UN envoy says

Updated 16 April 2024
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Peace hopes for Yemen must not become collateral damage of other regional conflicts, UN envoy says

  • Hans Grundberg warns of acute need for regional deescalation amid concerns about rising food insecurity and reemergence of cholera in Yemen
  • US deputy ambassador Robert Wood repeats ‘call for Iran to stop these illegal weapons transfers and to stop all activities that facilitate the Houthis’ reckless attacks’

NEW YORK CITY: The UN’s special envoy for Yemen on Monday said that while it is clear that the war in the country has connections to other conflicts in the region, “we owe it to the Yemenis to ensure that resolving the conflict in Yemen is not made contingent upon the resolution of other issues.”

Hans Grundberg added: “We cannot risk Yemen’s chance for peace becoming collateral damage” caused by other conflicts.

Speaking during a meeting of the Security Council to discuss the latest developments in the country, he said the threat of further attacks the Red Sea persists in absence of a ceasefire in Gaza, the urgent need for which was underscored by the latest escalation in hostilities between Israel and Iran.

Since the war between Hamas and Israel in Gaza began in October, attacks by the Iran-backed, Yemen-based Houthis on international shipping have continued to cause disruption to trade routes in the Red Sea. The militant group has threatened to continue the attacks until Israel ends its assault on Gaza. The UK and the US began to launch retaliatory military strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen in January.

There is an acute need for a deescalation of conflicts on a broader regional basis, Grundberg said as he warned: “If we leave Yemen’s political process in the waiting room and continue down this path of escalation, the consequences could be catastrophic, not only for Yemen but also for the wider region.”

Grundberg lamented that in contrast to last year, there was not much to celebrate this year during Eid Al-Fitr in Yemen.

“Detainees we had hoped would be released in time to spend Eid with their loved ones remain in detention,” he said. “Roads we had hoped to see open remain closed.

“We also witnessed the tragic killing and injury of 16 civilians, including women and children, when a residence was demolished by Ansar Allah individuals in Al-Bayda governorate,” he added, using the official name for the Houthis.

Briefing council members on the humanitarian situation in Yemen, Edem Wosornu, the director of operations and advocacy at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, highlighted the rising levels of food insecurity in the country over recent months.

She said the situation deteriorated further after the World Food Program suspended the distribution of food aid in areas controlled by the Houthis in December 2023. This pause followed disagreements with local authorities about who should receive priority assistance, and was compounded by the effects of a severe funding crisis on WFP humanitarian efforts in Yemen.

It comes as greater percentage of households in southern Yemen struggle to obtain sufficient supplies of food compared with those in the north, in part because of the historically low exchange rate of Yemeni rial against the US dollar in areas controlled by the internationally recognized government.

“The most vulnerable people — including women and girls, marginalized groups such as the Muhamasheen, internally displaced people, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees, and persons with disabilities — still depend on humanitarian assistance to survive,” said Wosornu.

She also voiced concern about an increase in cases of cholera in Yemen amid the continuing deterioration of public services and institutions.

“The reemergence of cholera, and growing levels of severe malnutrition, are telling indicators of the weakened capacity of social services,” she told the council.

“Almost one in every two children under 5 are stunted, more than double the global average: 49 per cent compared to 21.3 per cent.

“Emergency stocks of essential supplies are almost depleted. And water, sanitation and hygiene support systems need urgent strengthening.”

The humanitarian response plan for Yemen is only 10 percent funded, with funding of its food security and nutrition programs standing at just 5 percent and 3 percent respectively, according to an informal update presented to the Security Council by the OCHA this week. Wosornu appealed to the international community to take urgent action to help fill the funding gaps.

The US deputy ambassador to the UN, Robert Wood, urged council members to persist in their demands that the Houthis halt attacks on shipping in the Red Sea.

“We must also do more to underscore the council’s concern regarding the Iranian origin of weapons used by the Houthis, and the ongoing violations of the arms embargo,” he added.

“It is no secret that Iran provides weapons to the Houthis in violation of the UN arms embargo. We repeat our call for Iran to stop these illegal weapons transfers and to stop all activities that facilitate the Houthis’ reckless attacks.

“Iran’s continuous efforts to foment instability and terror in the region, as demonstrated through this weekend’s unprecedented attacks by Iran against the State of Israel, need to be strongly condemned by this council.”


Gaza’s historic treasures saved by ‘irony of history’

Updated 16 April 2024
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Gaza’s historic treasures saved by ‘irony of history’

  • Israel has killed more than 33,797 Palestinians in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory
  • A Palestinian worker inspects the ancient archaeological site of Anthedon Harbour, also know as "al-Blakhiyah", which is located next to a training site for Hamas military, in Gaza City on April 25, 2013

JERUSALEM: Gaza’s ancient Greek site of Anthedon has been bombed, its “Napoleon’s Palace” destroyed and the only private museum burned down: the war has taken a terrible toll on the rich heritage of the Palestinian territory.
But in a strange twist of fate, some of its greatest historical treasures are safe in a warehouse in Switzerland.
And ironically, it is all thanks to the blockade that made life in the Gaza Strip such a struggle for the past 16 years.
Based on satellite images, the UN cultural organization reckons some 41 historic sites have been damaged since Israel began pounding the besieged territory after the October 7 Hamas attack.

This combination of pictures created on January 11, 2024, shows a file picture of the 17th century Qasr al-Basha in Gaza City on April 21, 2021, where Napoleon Bonaparte slept for several nights during his campaign in Egypt and Palestine (bottom), and the same building severely damaged in Israeli bombardment during the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinians. (AFP)

On the ground, Palestinian archaeologist Fadel Al-Otol keeps tabs on the destruction in real time.
When he has electricity and Internet access, photos pour into a WhatsApp group he set up with 40 or so young peers he mobilized to watch over the territory’s vast array of ancient sites and monuments.
As a teenager in the 1990s, Otol was hired by European archaeological missions before going on to study in Switzerland and at the Louvre Museum in Paris.

This combination of pictures shows one taken on January 5, 2024 of Gaza City's historic Hammam Al-Samra, which used to be the only active traditional Turkish bath remaining in Gaza, located in the Zeitun quarter of the old city before it was destroyed in Israeli bombardment during the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement and another one (L) dating back to December 4, 2005 with Palestinian youths relaxing in the same steam bath. (AFP)

“All the archaeological remains in the north have been hit,” he told AFP by phone from Gaza.
The human toll since the October 7 Hamas attack has been chilling.
A total of 1,170 people were killed in the unprecedented raid on Israel, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.
Almost 34,000 have died in Gaza in unrelenting Israeli retaliation, according to the territory’s health ministry.
The damage to Gaza’s history has also been immense.

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas views pottery specimens during his visit to the exhibition "Gaza, at the crossroad of civilizations" at the Art and History Museum in Geneva on April 26, 2007. (AFP)

“Blakhiya (the ancient Greek city of Anthedon) was directly bombed. There’s a huge hole,” said Otol.
He said part of the site, near a Hamas barracks where “we hadn’t started excavating,” was hit.
The 13th-century Al-Basha palace in Gaza City’s old town “has been completely destroyed. There was bombing and (then) it was bulldozed.
“It held hundreds of ancient objects and magnificent sarcophagi,” Otol added as he shared recent photos of the ruins.

Artifacts are on display in the first ever National Museum of Archaeology in Gaza opend recently by Jawdat Khoudary, a Palestinian businessman and collector, on July 28, 2008. (AFP)

Napoleon is said to have based himself in the ochre stone edifice at the disastrous end of his Egyptian campaign in 1799.
The room where the French emperor supposedly slept was full of Byzantine artefacts.
“Our best finds were displayed in the Basha,” Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the French Biblical and Archaeological School in Jerusalem (EBAF) told AFP.
But we know little of their fate, he said. “Did someone remove the objects before blowing the building up?“
Nerves were frayed even further when the director of Israeli Antiquities, Eli Escusido, posted a video on Instagram of Israeli soldiers surrounded by vases and ancient pottery in the EBAF warehouse in Gaza City.
Much of what has been unearthed in digs in Gaza was stored either at the Al-Basha museum or the warehouse.
Palestinians quickly accused the army of pillaging. But EBAF archaeologist Rene Elter said he has seen no evidence of “state looting.”
“My colleagues were able to return to the site. The soldiers opened boxes. We don’t know if they took anything,” he told AFP.
However, he added: “Every day when Fadel (al-Otol) calls me, I’m afraid he’ll tell me that one of our colleagues has died or that such and such a site has been destroyed.”
Archaeology is a highly political issue in Israel and the Palestinian territories, with discoveries often used to justify the claims of the two warring peoples.
While Israel has an army of archaeologists who have unearthed an impressive number of ancient treasures, Gaza remains relatively untouched by the trowel despite a rich past stretching back thousands of years.

The only sheltered natural harbor between the Sinai and Lebanon, Gaza has been for centuries a crossroads of civilizations.
A pivot point between Africa and Asia and a hub of the incense trade, it was coveted by the Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Ottomans.
A key figure in excavating this glorious past over the last few decades has been Jawdat Khoudary, a Gazan construction magnate and collector.
Gaza, with its “seafront real estate,” had a property boom in the 1990s after the Oslo peace accords and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
When building workers dug up the soil, they came across lots and lots of ancient objects. Khoudary amassed a treasure trove of artefacts that he opened up to foreign archaeologists.
Marc-Andre Haldimann, then curator of MAH, Geneva’s art and history museum, couldn’t believe his eyes when he was invited to have a look around the garden of Khoudary’s mansion in 2004.
“We found ourselves in front of 4,000 objects, including an avenue of Byzantine columns,” he told AFP.
Quickly an idea took shape to organize a major exhibition to highlight Gaza’s past at the MAH, and then to build a museum in the territory itself so that the Palestinians could take ownership of their own heritage.
At the end of 2006, around 260 objects from the Khoudary collection left Gaza for Geneva, with some later going on to be part of another hit show at the Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris.
But geopolitics changed along the way. In June 2007, Hamas drove the Palestinian Authority from Gaza. And Israel imposed its blockade.
As a result, the Gazan artefacts could no longer return home and remained stuck in Geneva, while the archaeological museum project fizzled out.
But Khoudary did not give up hope. He built a museum-hotel called Al-Mathaf, museum in Arabic, on the Mediterranean coast north of Gaza City.
But then came the Israeli ground offensive after the Hamas attack on October 7, which began in Gaza’s north.

“Al-Mathaf remained under Israeli control for months,” Khoudary, who fled Gaza for Egypt, told AFP. “As soon as they left, I asked some people to go there to see what state the place was in. I was shocked. Several items were missing and the hall had been set on fire.
His mansion was also destroyed during fierce fighting in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood of Gaza City.
“The Israelis flattened the garden with bulldozers... I don’t know whether objects were buried (by the bulldozers) or whether the marble columns were broken or looted. I can’t find words,” he added.
The Israeli military did not comment on specific sites. But it accused Hamas of systematically using civilian structures like cultural heritage sites, government buildings, schools, shelters and hospitals for military purposes.
“Israel maintains its commitments to international law, including by affording the necessary special protections,” the army added in a statement.
While part of Khoudary’s collection has been lost, the treasures held in Switzerland remain intact, saved by the blockade and the red tape that delayed their return.
“There were 106 crates ready to go” for years, said Beatrice Blandin, the MAH museum’s current curator.
Safely far from the war raging in Gaza, “the objects are in good condition,” she added. “We restored some of the bronze pieces that were slightly corroded and repacked everything.
“We just had to be sure that the convoy would not be blocked,” she told AFP. “We were waiting for that green light.”
But with any return impossible for the moment, Blandin said “discussions are under way” for a new Gaza exhibition in Switzerland.
Khoudary is excited by the idea.
“The most important collection of objects on the history of Gaza is in Geneva. If there is a new show, it will allow the whole world to learn about our history,” he told AFP from Cairo.
“It’s an irony of history,” said Haldimann, who is trying to get his friend Fadel Al-Otol safely out of Gaza.
“A new Gaza exhibition would show once again that Gaza... is anything but a black hole.”