Geneva - Israel is conducting systematic military attacks against cultural sites and historical monuments as part of its ongoing genocide against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which began on 7 October 2023. This constitutes a serious violation of both international humanitarian and human rights law, particularly the Geneva Conventions and the International Hague Convention pertaining to the protection of cultural heritage, Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor said on Monday. 

Euro-Med Monitor expressed deep concern over reports of the Israeli army seizing thousands of rare artefacts in the Gaza Strip, which may amount to a war crime according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Israel’s army released footage on 17 January 2024 documenting its blowing up of Al-Israa University’s campus, located south of Gaza City, more than two months after occupying the university and using it as a military base, a centre for sniping civilians, and a temporary detention and investigation facility.

The destruction operation also included the headquarters of the National Museum, which was established by Al-Israa University years ago, the rights group confirmed. Regarded as the first of its kind in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, the museum contained over 3,000 rare artefacts; Al-Israa University said in a statement that Israeli army forces stole the artefacts before they blew up the building.

Eli Escusido, Director of the Israel Antiquities Authority, posted a video to his Instagram account showing Israeli army soldiers at a site in Gaza containing hundreds of Palestinian artefacts. The video was shared without any explanation of the artefacts’ fate, noted Euro-Med Monitor. 

The Euro-Med Monitor team received reports early in November 2023 that the Israeli army had stolen all of the archaeological artefacts it excavated from the Tel Umm Amer site (or the Monastery of Saint Hilarion), which is thought to have been one of the oldest monasteries in Palestine.

Euro-Med Monitor affirmed that, in accordance with international law, the theft of antiquities constitutes a war crime. Article 4 of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict and its First Protocol prohibit the seizure of antiquities during conflicts. The rights organisation added that illicit trafficking of cultural property, including antiquities, is prohibited by the 1970 UNESCO Convention on Measures to Prevent the Illegal Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Furthermore, as per Article 8 of the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court—which highlights the safeguarding of cultural heritage and the criminal accountability of those who breach these regulations—the taking and demolishing of antiquities constitutes a war crime.

The Geneva-based organisation emphasised that Israel’s stealing archaeological artefacts from the territory it controls is theft of cultural property and a breach of international human rights law, as outlined in the Economic and Social Rights Convention and the Convention on Civil and Political Rights, both of which Israel is a party. Israel has been deliberately stealing artefacts from Gaza as part of its systematic targeting of archaeological, historical, and cultural sites and materials in the Strip since the start of its ongoing attacks, the rights group stressed, as part of a larger plan to destroy Palestinian national and cultural identity and pride, erase the historical connection of Gazans to their land, and destroy any evidence of their presence.

Euro-Med Monitor drew attention to Israel’s clear intentional targeting of all historical structures in the Gaza Strip, including homes, churches, mosques, shrines, and archaeological sites, in addition to cultural institutions such as public libraries and monuments, theatres, publishing and printing houses, museums, and public squares. The Euro-Med Monitor team pointed to at least 10 mosques, 12 museums, and nine archaeological sites, as well as historical and archaeological churches and roughly 200 old historical buildings—mansions, castles, and palaces—as examples of sites damaged by Israel’s current bombing and destruction campaign.

This type of destruction indicates that Israel has implemented a broad and general policy to target all significant markers of Palestinian cultural, historical, and religious presence in the Gaza Strip, Euro-Med Monitor reiterated, citing the Israeli army’s targeting of memorials, gardens, and even artistic murals across the Strip, particularly in Gaza City.

Thousands of historical documents—many of which were over a century old and documented Gaza City’s architecture and the phases of its urban development—were destroyed during Israel’s recent bombing of the Gaza Municipality’s Central Archives building, along with the building itself.

Gaza’s historical landmarks and cultural assets belong to all people who are curious about human history, stated Euro-Med Monitor, not just the nation where they are situated. Thus, an impartial international investigation must be opened into the Israeli military’s egregious violations, in order to hold it accountable and put actual pressure on Israel to stop its genocide of Gazans.

Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor called on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) to fulfill its obligations by sending an investigation committee to uncover the fate of thousands of artefacts stolen from the Gaza Strip, examine the damaged historical sites, and hold Israel accountable for targeting cultural sites and human heritage in the Strip.