I will start this column with a question for you, dear reader. What connects you with your country, and makes you feel it is yours? What gives you a sense of identity and belonging? It’s the physical things, of course – where you live, where you were born, where your family and friends reside. But underlying those practical aspects, I suspect, are all the other things that you don’t think about, that you take for granted. The music, the literature, the humour, the art and cinema and TV – all the abstract touchstones of an identity that form a connective tissue between you and your country.
I ask because the corollary of the question “what makes a people?” is “what erases one?” And what is unfolding in Gaza has made that question an urgent one. Because alongside the horrors of death and displacement, something else is happening – something existential, rarely acknowledged and potentially irreversible.
It looks like this. Earlier this month, Gaza’s oldest mosque was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. The Omari mosque was originally a fifth century Byzantine church, and was an iconic landmark of Gaza: 44,000 sq ft of history, architecture and cultural heritage. But it was also a live site of contemporary practice and worship. A 45-year-old Gazan told Reuters that he had been “praying there and playing around it all through my childhood”. Israel, he said, is “trying to wipe out our memories”.
St Porphyrius church, the oldest in Gaza, also dating back to the fifth century and believed to be the third oldest church in the world, was damaged in another strike in October. It was sheltering displaced people, among them members of the oldest Christian community in the world, one that dates back to the first century. So far, more than 100 heritage sites in Gaza have been damaged or levelled. Among them are a 2,000-year-old Roman cemetery and the Rafah Museum, which was dedicated to the region’s long and mixed religious and architectural heritage.
As the past is being uprooted, the future is also being curtailed. The Islamic University of Gaza, the first higher education institution established in the Gaza Strip in 1978, and which trains, among others, Gaza’s doctors and engineers, has been destroyed, along with more than 200 schools. [Continue reading…]