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Gaza's Archeological Treasures At Risk

Mosaic pavement in the Saint Hilarion Byzantine monastery
Mosaic pavement in the Saint Hilarion Byzantine monastery
Luis Lema

GAZA - At first sight, it is just a wasteland. Sand – blown in from a nearby beach – covers the scattered bushes. Here and there, ruins, where sometimes children play, barefoot.

Welcome to what used to be the spectacular Anthedon Harbor, one of the crossroads of antique civilizations, which for 2000 years was used as the maritime gateway of the Incense trade route.

Here, under the sand, lie centuries of History. The site contains enough archeological treasures for the Palestinians to submit its candidacy to the UNESCO World Heritage List.

But Anthedon – now called Blakhiyeh – in northern Gaza, is at the center of a growing controversy. The news spread like wildfire, all the way to the headquarters of UNESCO in Paris. Amplified and distorted by various pro-Israeli media and organizations, it has the potential to shake the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, which is already under criticism for accepting Palestine as a member state in 2011. “UNESCO silent as Hamas bulldozes world heritage site for terrorist training camp” wrote one website.

The issue is the construction on this 50-hectares site, of military barracks and installations. In the local press, Deputy Minister of Tourism in Gaza Muhammad Khela, admitted this clearly: “We can’t stand as an obstacle in the way of Palestinian resistance; we are all a part of a resistance project, yet we promise that the location will be limitedly used without harming it at all.”

At the Biblical School of Jerusalem, Jean Baptiste Humbert is angry. For 10 years, this Dominican priest has dedicated himself to this site, directing the archeological digs, wearing a straw hat and with a trowel in his hand. But his anger is not directed toward Hamas. “The Gaza strip is enclosed, crushed, humiliated. Abandoned to their own devices, the Palestinians will never be able to solve these issues. It is us, Europe and the U.S. who are creating Islam there.”

“Wastelands” are not rife in the tiny Gaza strip, where 1.8 million people live. They are a rare luxury. More than 80,000 people live in the only refugee camp – Shatteh – that borders the antique Anthedon. Brick buildings, but also luxury hotels, keep getting closer. Yet, water is starting to run out and the construction of a giant sewage plant threatens to impede on the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine remains. “Palestinians have to deal with sewage issues, but this should not lead to the destruction of the site,” says Humbert.

Protecting sites from looters

Fadel el-Otol knows the issues plaguing Palestinian antique sites. Today, in the complete absence of foreign archeologists, he has become of one their last keepers. He is not only watching over the Blakhiyeh/Anthedon site, but also the Saint Hilarion Byzantine monastery (also known as Tell Umm Amer), in the south, considered another contender for the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

“Weeds are growing, walls are collapsing because of the rain, arches are threatened, some of the footbridges that we erected for the public are also at risk of collapsing,” he says. For the sole site of Anthedon, which has been practically abandoned since Hamas came to power, 2,000 trucks are needed to clear the sand that has accumulated.

This debacle however, does not mean the Gaza leadership is not interested in archeology, something long considered as one of the essential stakes in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. At the Islamic University of Gaza, Fadel el-Otol shares his archaeological knowledge with dozens of young students. Hamas has even opened a museum in Gaza and started its own dig in the south, near the Egyptian border. The problem is that it employs unemployed people, who have no archeological training whatsoever. It is more preoccupied with finding jobs for its population than by organizing a real archeological dig.

Heading the Hilarion monastery digs, René Elter, a Frenchman praises the fact that everyday dozens of school children are sent to visit these Christian relics. “There is much respect from local people. They are all aware that the site can bring a lot to Palestinians in regard to openness and training. It may seem paradoxical, but Hamas is part of this consensus.”

Elter confirms the state of general dilapidation. Worried about looking like they don’t support Hamas, donators are turning away. At the border, Israeli controls are unremitting, even for diplomatic visa holders – their goal is to discourage people. “Today, only the workers that have been working for us for 20 years still take part into preservation. If nothing else is done, the site will crumble into dust in the next two or three years. It would be a catastrophe,” he warns. At night, since they can’t afford to pay for watchmen, it is the workers themselves who protect the archeological site, without being paid for this.

Elter insists: “This archeological site is irreplaceable, especially in the context of Gaza. For instance, to talk to children about the existence of other religious cultures.” The archeologist estimates that $300,000 to $400,000 are necessary to maintain the site and to protect if from looting. In Gaza there is a shortage of everything, even construction materials. Sometimes, locals are tempted to seize antique marble blocks to use... as gravel for concrete.

The embarrassment caused by the Anthedon debacle is tangible among Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Israelis, who were worried that Palestine would use their World Heritage Claim with UNESCO to denounce the Israeli occupation, are rubbing their hands with glee. Now the Palestinian authority is in trouble because of Hamas’ dealings in Gaza, something it has no control over.

UNESCO's Ramallah branch, is not commenting on the issue. And in the pro-Israeli press, which is exulting over the issue, it seems no one has realized that the Anthedon site and the Hilarion monastery, were both damaged by Israeli bombs and tanks during army incursions.

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