Reports by United Nations and Heritage for Peace reveal many destroyed or damaged cultural heritage sites in Gaza

Damage Report

Reports by United Nations and Heritage for Peace reveal many destroyed or damaged cultural heritage sites in Gaza

Palestinians inspect the ruins of a mosque destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza strip, on October 8, 2023. (Mahmoud Fareed/Wafa/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0)

Reliefweb, a United Nations (UN) Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) affiliate, estimates that 66 mosques in Gaza have been destroyed since October 7, an act which constitutes, according to OCHA, a “total violation of the rules of war.In total, Reliefweb estimates that 146 places of worship have been “partially damaged.” The research was conducted by Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor which is documenting the war’s toll on Gaza.

In a separate report, Heritage for Peace, a Spanish NGO, claimed that 104 cultural heritage sites in Gaza have been either destroyed or damaged. This report, penned by Dr. Ahmed Al-Barsh of The Arab Network of Civil Society Organizations for Cultural Heritage Protection (ANCOCHP), takes into account both religious and secular sites. Its findings were later published by NPR and The Art Newspaper.

Perhaps the most significant cultural heritage site to have been destroyed thus far is the Grand Al-Omari Mosque in Jabaliya, located in the northern part of the Gaza Strip. Built in the seventh century, Grand Al-Omari Mosque was bombed by the British in 1917. Also known as The Great Mosque of Gaza, the medieval building was later restored in 1925. 

The Grand Al-Omari Mosque was first struck by Israeli rockets on October 20, according to The Cradle. It was struck a second time and further damaged on December 8, an attack that was reported by the Times of Gaza, Reuters, and The Times of Israel.

Another prominent Gazan landmark to have been destroyed is the Rashad al-Shawa Cultural Center, a Brutalist building designed by Syrian architect Sa’ad Mohaffel. The building was hit by Israeli shelling on November 25 as reported by The Washington Post. Anadolu Agency noted that hundreds of displaced Palestinians were seeking shelter in the building at the time.

In the wake of the Center’s attack, Louis Brehony, writing in The Palestine Chronicle, described it as “a beacon of cultural vibrancy for over two decades, a place of performance, poetry, music, art and local engagement.”

The building, completed in 1989, according to the website SOS Brutalism, was designed as a library, meeting hall, and exhibition space, and named after former Gaza mayor Rashad al-Shawa. South African President Nelson Mandela is known to have lectured there, and almost 25 years ago it even hosted peace talks between Yasser Arafat and Bill Clinton.

Aerial view of Rashad al-Shawwa Theater after its 1989 completion (Wikimapia)

The 43-page report from Heritage for Peace details how the destruction of mosques and cultural buildings has been a regular result of Israel’s ongoing military activity. As reported by AN, an ancient Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza City built in the year 1150 was attacked on October 20; the Israeli strike killed at least 16 Palestinian civilians seeking shelter in the church. According to Lithub, Gaza’s Public Library was partially destroyed by Israeli rockets.

The Ibn Uthman Mosque, a structure built in the 15th century, was also struck and badly damaged in late November. Uthman ibn Affan Mosque in Gaza City’s Turukman Quarter had been hit close to this date as well, according to BNN. The Art Newspaper reported that, around that date, a 2,000-year-old Roman cemetery in northern Gaza, discovered just last year, was nearly destroyed. The Heritage for Peace report claims that Rafah Museum in southern Gaza and Al Qarara Cultural Museum in Khan Younis have also been badly damaged, along with Deir Al Balah Museum, Anthedon Harbour, Saint Hilarion Monastery, and Tell-es Sakan.

In early December, the central archive at Birzeit University in Gaza, sited in the university’s Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies, was shelled by Israeli rockets. This central archive contains over 10,000 historical documents. The attack was confirmed by Birzeit University on social media.

Gazan officials have called upon UNESCO to do more to protect Palestinian sites of cultural importance. Officials requested that UNESCO “intervene and protect cultural centres and condemn the occupation’s targeting of these humanitarian facilities protected under international humanitarian law.”

A report from the United Nations, updated daily, stated over 60 percent of Gaza’s total building stock has been reportedly destroyed or damaged since October 7. The report listed that over 52,000 housing units have been destroyed and 253,000 have been partially damaged. Reliefweb indicates that over 21,700 Palestinians have been killed and almost 50,600 injured, in addition to the over 1,200 Israelis killed by Hamas.