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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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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