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

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This combination of pictures created on January 11, 2024, shows Gaza City's Omari Mosque on January 5, 2024, the oldest mosque in Gaza, damaged in Israeli bombardment during the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement(L) and a file picture of a Palestinian man reading the Koran in the courtyard of the same mosque on the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on March 23, 2023. (AFP)
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This picture taken on April 21, 2021 shows an exterior view of Qasr al-Basha in Gaza City, where Napoleon Bonaparte slept for several nights during his campaign in Egypt and Palestine. (AFP)
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A picture taken on January 5, 2024 shows Gaza City's 17th century Qasr al-Basha or the Pasha's Palace, also known as Radwan dynasty castle, which houses a museum and a girls'school, damaged in Israeli bombardment during the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. (AFP)
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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)
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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. (AFP)
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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.”

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Israel army says kills Palestinian teen after West Bank ‘attempted attack’

Updated 27 May 2024
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Israel army says kills Palestinian teen after West Bank ‘attempted attack’

  • The deadly incident took place near Hebron in the southern West Bank, the army and the Palestinian ministry said

JERUSALEM: Israel’s military said its troops killed a Palestinian assailant in the occupied West Bank, with the Palestinian health ministry identifying him as a teenager.
Israeli forces “identified a terrorist who came in their direction and attempted to carry out a stabbing attack,” a military statement said.
“The soldiers fired at him and killed him,” it said.
The Palestinian health ministry identified the fatality as Majd Shahir Aramin, 14, and said he had been killed by Israeli forces.
The deadly incident took place near Hebron in the southern West Bank, the army and the Palestinian ministry said.
The West Bank, which Israel has occupied since 1967, has seen a surge in violence for more than a year, but especially since the Israel-Hamas war erupted on October 7.
According to Palestinian officials, at least 519 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank by Israeli troops or settlers since the start of the war in the Gaza Strip.
Attacks by Palestinians have killed at least 12 Israelis in the West Bank over the same period, according to an AFP tally of Israeli official figures.


Israeli police and Jewish pilgrims clash at beleaguered festival site

Updated 27 May 2024
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Israeli police and Jewish pilgrims clash at beleaguered festival site

  • The all-night sessions of prayer, mystical songs and dance had in previous years drawn crowds in the tens of thousands
  • Police limited the number of attendees since the 2021 tragedy in which 45 people died in a crowd rush

JERUSALEM: Clashes erupted on Sunday between police and Jewish pilgrims at a religious festival site in northern Israel where three years ago 45 people died in a crowd crush, and which authorities closed this year due to rocket fire from Lebanon.

Since the 2021 tragedy at the tomb of a 2nd-century sage during the annual Lag B’Omer celebration, police have limited the number of attendees.

The all-night sessions of prayer, mystical songs and dance had in previous years drawn crowds in the tens of thousands.

This year’s festival was canceled since the site at Meron in the Galilee region has been targeted by rocket fire from Lebanon.

Many northern Israeli towns have been evacuated since Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon began firing at them following Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault on southern Israel, which sparked the war in Gaza.

Both sides have traded blows since. Despite the closure, police said they turned away thousands of pilgrims over the weekend, though hundreds managed to reach the site, where things got out of hand.

The visitors damaged property and hurled objects at officers, police said. Nineteen officers were injured.

Israeli media reported that several people among the unauthorized crowd were hurt. At least one officer was suspended for pushing an older man to the ground, and police said it was examining other incidents from the site.


Ten dead, 39 injured in southern Turkiye highway collision

Updated 27 May 2024
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Ten dead, 39 injured in southern Turkiye highway collision

ISTANBUL: Ten people died and 39 others were injured in southern Turkiye on Sunday when an intercity bus collided with three other vehicles on a main highway, Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya said.
The bus, traveling to Istanbul from Diyarbakir, crashed into a transport truck and two other vehicles in the Tarsus district near the Mediterranean city of Mersin, he said on social media platform X.
The government said an investigation had been launched.

 


Israel war cabinet to discuss new push for Gaza hostage deal

Updated 27 May 2024
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Israel war cabinet to discuss new push for Gaza hostage deal

  • Hamas eader Izzat Al-Rishq jas accused Netanyahu earlier Sunday of “trying to buy more time to continue the aggression"

RAFAH, Palestinian Territories: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he “strongly opposes” ending the war in Gaza, ahead of his war cabinet convening amid intense diplomacy to forge a truce and hostage release deal.

Meanwhile deadly fighting rocked the Gaza Strip and Hamas militants fired a salvo of rockets at Israel’s commercial hub Tel Aviv for the first time in months, sending people scrambling for shelter.
Netanyahu has long rejected Hamas’s demand in negotiations for a permanent end to the fighting, which was triggered by the Palestinian militant group’s October 7 attack and has left vast areas of besieged Gaza in ruins.
A senior Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, had earlier told AFP that “the war cabinet is expected to meet... tonight at 9 p.m. (1800 GMT) to discuss a hostage release deal.”
A statement issued by Netanyahu’s office before the meeting said Hamas chief in Gaza Yahya “Sinwar continues to demand the end of the war, the withdrawal of the IDF (army) from the Gaza Strip and leaving Hamas in place, so that it will be able to carry out the atrocities of October 7 again and again,” referring to the attack that triggered the war.
“Prime Minister Netanyahu strongly opposes this,” the statement said.
A member of Hamas’s political leadership, Izzat Al-Rishq, accused Netanyahu earlier Sunday of “trying to buy more time to continue the aggression.”
In Brussels, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told journalists before meeting Palestinian premier Mohammed Mustafa that a strong Palestinian Authority (PA) was in Israel’s interest.
EU members Ireland and Spain, and also Norway, have said they will recognize the State of Palestine from Tuesday, drawing furious Israeli condemnation.
“A functional Palestinian Authority is in Israel’s interest too, because in order to make peace, we need a strong Palestinian Authority, not a weaker one,” Borrell said.
Mustafa, whose government is based in the occupied West Bank, said the “first priority” was to support people in Gaza, especially through a ceasefire, and then “rebuilding the institutions of the Palestinian Authority” there after Hamas seized it from the PA in 2007.
US President Joe Biden has pushed for renewed international efforts to halt the war, now in its eighth month.
The Israeli official had said Saturday that “there is an intention to renew these talks this week” after negotiations involving US, Qatari and Egyptian mediators stalled in early May.
However, Rishq said Sunday that so far, “we have not received anything from the mediators.”
He insisted on Hamas’s long-standing demand for a permanent cessation of hostilities as “the foundation and the starting point for anything.”


Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to destroy Hamas following the October 7 attack, but has also faced growing domestic and international criticism.
The attack on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of more than 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 35,984 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.
The military on Sunday announced the death of a soldier in north Gaza, taking to 289 the number of troops killed since Israel began its ground offensive in late October.
As the war ground on, the families of hostages still held by Palestinians militants have piled pressure on Netanyahu to secure a deal to free them.
Washington has also taken a tougher line with its close ally as outrage over the war and US support for Israel has become a major issue for Biden, seeking re-election in a battle against Donald Trump.
With more strikes reported Sunday across Gaza, Israel’s military said that over the past 24 hours it had destroyed “over 50 terror targets.”
Fighting has centered on the far-southern city of Rafah, where Israel launched a ground operation in early May despite widespread opposition over concerns for civilians sheltering there.
Rafah resident Moaz Abu Taha, 29, told AFP of “constant bombardment from land and air, which has destroyed many houses.”
Gaza’s civil defense agency said it had retrieved six bodies after a house was targeted in eastern Rafah.

Hamas’s armed wing said it had targeted Tel Aviv “with a large rocket barrage in response to the Zionist (Israeli) massacres against civilians.”
Israeli military spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari told a televised briefing that “Hamas terrorists in Gaza fired eight rockets at central Israel from Rafah.”
“Hamas launched these rockets from near two mosques in Rafah,” Hagari said. “Hamas is holding our hostages in Rafah, which is why we have been conducting a precise operation” there.
Analyst Neomi Neumann said the militants were not trying to “cause damage to Israel, but to maintain continuity of fire.”
They “shoot relatively few rockets per barrage from their diminishing arsenal, and choose when to concentrate their efforts,” said Neumann, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.
The UN has warned of looming famine in the besieged territory, where most hospitals are no longer functioning.
Amid the bloodiest ever Gaza war, Israel has faced growing global outcry over the surging civilian death toll, and landmark moves last week at two international courts.
Last Monday, the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court announced he was seeking arrest warrants for Netanyahu and his defense minister as well as for three top Hamas figures.
And on Friday, the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to halt its Rafah offensive or any other operation there that could bring about “the physical destruction” of the Palestinians.
 


Palestinian medics say Israeli airstrikes on refugee camp in Rafah kills 35

Updated 27 May 2024
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Palestinian medics say Israeli airstrikes on refugee camp in Rafah kills 35

  • The attacks came two days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to end its military offensive in Rafah
  • Israel’s army confirmed the strike and said it hit a Hamas installation and killed two senior Hamas militants

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip: Palestinian health workers said Israeli airstrikes killed at least 35 people Sunday and hit tents for displaced people in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, and “numerous” others were trapped in flaming debris. Gaza’s Health Ministry said women and children made up most of the dead and dozens of wounded.

The attacks came two days after the International Court of Justice ordered Israel to end its military offensive in Rafah, where more than half of Gaza’s population had sought shelter before Israel’s incursion earlier this month. Tens of thousands of people remain in the area while many others have fled.
Footage from the scene of the largest airstrike showed heavy destruction. Israel’s army confirmed the strike and said it hit a Hamas installation and killed two senior Hamas militants. It said it was investigating reports that civilians were harmed. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant was in Rafah on Sunday and was briefed on the “deepening of operations” there, his office said.

A Palestinian wounded in an Israeli bombardment on the Gaza Strip is brought to Al Aqsa hospital in Deir al Balah, central Gaza Strip, on May 26, 2024. (AP) 

A spokesperson with the Palestinian Red Crescent Society said the death toll was likely to rise as search and rescue efforts continued in Rafah’s Tal Al-Sultan neighborhood about two kilometers (1.2 miles) northwest of the city center.
The society asserted that the location had been designated by Israel as a “humanitarian area.” The neighborhood is not included in areas that Israel’s military ordered evacuated earlier this month.
The airstrike was reported hours after Hamas fired a barrage of rockets from Gaza that set off air raid sirens as far away as Tel Aviv for the first time in months in a show of resilience more than seven months into Israel’s massive air, sea and ground offensive.
There were no reports of casualties in what appeared to be the first long-range rocket attack from Gaza since January. Hamas’ military wing claimed responsibility. Israel’s military said eight projectiles crossed into Israel after being launched from Rafah and “a number” were intercepted, and the launcher was destroyed.
Earlier Sunday, dozens of aid trucks entered Gaza from southern Israel under a new agreement to bypass the Rafah crossing with Egypt after Israeli forces seized the Palestinian side of it earlier this month. Israel’s military said 126 aid trucks entered via the nearby Kerem Shalom crossing.
But it was not immediately clear if humanitarian groups could access the aid — including medical supplies — because of fighting. The crossing has been largely inaccessible because of Israel’s offensive in Rafah. United Nations agencies say it is usually too dangerous to retrieve the aid. The World Health Organization last week said an expanded Israeli incursion in Rafah would have “disastrous” impact.”
“With the humanitarian operation near collapse, the secretary-general emphasizes that the Israeli authorities must facilitate the safe pickup and delivery of humanitarian supplies from Egypt entering Kerem Shalom,” the spokesperson for UN chief Antonio Guterres said in a statement.
Egypt refuses to reopen its side of the Rafah crossing until control of the Gaza side is handed back to Palestinians. It agreed to temporarily divert traffic through Kerem Shalom, Gaza’s main cargo terminal, after a call between US President Joe Biden and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.
The war between Israel and Hamas has killed nearly 36,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and fighters in its count. Israel blames civilian deaths on Hamas because the militants operate in dense, residential areas.
Around 80 percent of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have fled their homes, severe hunger is widespread and UN officials say parts of the territory are experiencing famine.
Hamas triggered the war with its Oct. 7 attack into Israel, in which Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and seized some 250 hostages. Hamas still holds some 100 hostages and the remains of around 30 others after most of the rest were released during a ceasefire last year.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel must take over Rafah to eliminate Hamas’ remaining battalions and achieve “total victory” over the militants, who recently regrouped in other parts of Gaza.
The war has also heightened tensions in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Palestinian authorities on Sunday said Israeli forces shot dead a 14-year-old boy near the southern West Bank town of Saeer. The Israeli army said the Palestinian male was shot dead after trying to stab Israeli forces at Beit Einun Junction.
Southern Gaza largely cut off from aid
Southern Gaza has been largely cut off from aid since Israel launched what it called a limited incursion into Rafah on May 6. Since then over 1 million Palestinians, many already displaced, have fled the city.
Northern Gaza receives aid through two land routes that Israel opened during global outrage after Israeli strikes killed seven aid workers in April.
A few dozen trucks enter Gaza daily through a US-built floating pier, far below the 150 trucks a day that officials hoped for. Aid groups say 600 trucks a day are needed.
Israeli man detained over mutiny threat
Israel’s military said it had detained a suspect over a widely circulated video in which a man dressed as a soldier threatens mutiny. The man says tens of thousands of soldiers were ready to disobey the defense minister over his suggestion that Palestinians should govern Gaza after the war, and pledged loyalty to Netanyahu alone.
Israeli military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said the man has been removed from reserve duty. It was not clear when or where the video was made. The prime minister’s office released a brief statement condemning all forms of military insubordination.