History after Destruction: Case of Gaza’s Monuments
History after Destruction: Case of Gaza’s Monuments

In a recent interview on Al Jazeera, Shahidul Alam, the eminent photographer, activist, and founder of Dirk Picture Library (Dhaka)— while speaking on world conflicts— shared that people don’t learn from history because the official history, in most cases, is not the history of the people.

The people’s version of history can be found in ballads and legends that carry their stories of defiance, struggle and courage. In our times, social media as a popular expression has added a global dimension to the shared narratives of injustice and resistance. It is powerful and difficult to manipulate because it’s interactive and operates in real time. A testament to this was images of children in Gaza holding placards to thank students at Columbia University just as the protesters at Columbia faced police brutality, both became history via the internet.

How will history of the twentieth and twenty first century record the settler colonization of Palestine and the ongoing genocide of Gaza? Will it be brutally honest in stating that the massacre of 35,000 palestenians could have been avoided if UN Peacekeeping forces had intervened? Will it raise questions on why the very countries, that were once proud architects of Human Rights Convention and the Geneva Convention, have become complicit in crimes against humanity?

Another kind of destruction taking place in Gaza is one of cultural repositories like libraries, universities, colleges and historical sites that UNESCO is mandated to protect.

According to findings via satellite and eyewitness accounts, UNESCO has verified damage to 43 significant cultural sites that include 24 buildings of historical and artistic interest.

A major hub of art activity, the Shababeek for Contemporary Art, was razed to the ground by Israeli bombing, along with invaluable collection of 20,000 art works. This included 5,000 pieces that represented 30 years of the art practice of Sarhan, one of the founders of Shababeek for Contemporary Art. Earlier Eltiqa Group for Contemporary Art, another established visual arts space was also destroyed. Both these institutions offered community programming and art therapy for youth growing up amid the wars and blockades. Palestinians lost their prominent artist, Fathi Ghaben when he was kept from leaving Gaza to receive urgent medical care and we have news that popular artist Heba Zaqout was also killed in an airstrike. The human cultural capital of Gaza is increasingly at risk as intellectuals, academics, artists, poets and writers, among them 3 university presidents and 95 university professors, have been killed since October 2023.

In the last seven months neither of the major global electronic media nor the press have reported on the systematic destruction of museums in Gaza. The Al-Qarara Cultural Museum which housed a pottery collection from the Byzantine period, suffered serious damage. The Rafah Museum and Al-Mathaf, a national archaeology museum in the making, was also bombed and its contents lost forever. Israel is not only destroying historical sites but appropriating them for military use. Forensic Architecture has reported on the archaeological site of Blakhiyya, (identified as Anthedon Harbour, Gaza’s ancient seaport dated 800 BCE – 1100), has been largely damaged by Israeli airstrikes and military activities. The same is true of Mukheitim, the Byzantine Church from the fifth century, with its mosaic floors and Greek inscriptions which has been turned into a base for the Israeli military. Reports on the abuse and destruction of heritage are regularly issued on websites of concerned organizations like Forensic Architecture but the worldwide condemnation and extensive media debates that followed the destruction of the Banyan Buddhas in Afghanistan and looting of the Baghdad Museum, has yet to be seen.

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict states that “damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the world”. Furthermore, UN Conventions emphasize that cultural heritage is an important component of the cultural identity of communities, groups and individuals, and of social cohesion, so that its intentional destruction may have adverse consequences on human dignity and human rights will record for posterity that the failure to stop Israel and the active role of USA, UK and Germany is allowing this to take place will be an unforgivable loss of irreplaceable world heritage sites and the erasure of the tangible and intangible cultural heritage of the Palestinian people.

Niilofur Farrukh is a Karachi based art interventionist whose seminal initiatives have expanded the space for art publication, curation and public art in Pakistan. Her primary interest lies in issues of decolonization and as a writer/curator her focus has been on the excavation of lost interdisciplinary connections within the cultural matrix. She has several books to her credit and has been a columnist with Dawn and Newsline. The cornerstone of her curatorial practice underlines a more inclusive social dialogue through art in public spaces, something she is fully committed to as the CEO of the Karachi Biennale.

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