Middle East Studies Association speaks out against cultural genocide

MESA Board Joint Statement with CAF regarding the ongoing genocidal violence against the Palestinian people and their cultural heritage in Gaza

The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association and its Committee on Academic Freedom condemn in the strongest possible terms the ongoing attack on Gaza by the state of Israel, which has now claimed more than 100,000 Palestinian dead and wounded according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. We have previously written statements on the conflict since 7 October 2023, including the horrors inflicted on civilians and the educational sector in Gaza (21 November 202325 January 2024) the West Bank (22 November 2023), Jerusalem (9 November 2023) and Israel (20 November 202328 November 202323 January 2024). We feel compelled to write once more to address not only the accelerating scale of genocidal violence being inflicted on the Palestinian population of Gaza, but also the concomitant cultural genocide that is the result of the wanton destruction of the built environment and civilian infrastructure of the Gaza Strip.

The horrific human toll of the massive military assault on Gaza, now having surpassed its 155th day, has proceeded hand in glove with the deliberate destruction of the historical landscape of the territory. The very notion of a Palestinian people is itself under attack through Israel’s policy of destroying Gaza’s archaeological, religious, and cultural heritage. As a scholarly community, we are aghast first and foremost at the unfathomable and indiscriminate violence threatening the lives of 2.3 million people. Alongside the magnitude of the atrocities committed against the Palestinian population, we must also bear witness to the decimation of thousands of years of historical material culture that constitute a part of our shared world heritage.

The current multipronged attacks against Gaza appear calculated to achieve nothing less than the total erasure of the Palestinians and their history from this small coastal strip. Horrendous in its nature and scope, this war is also just the most recent, if also most deadly, episode of a hundred-year-long policy, actively abetted and openly supported by the United States, along with a succession of other Western powers, to facilitate the expulsion of the Palestinians from their homeland, erase their material and cultural claims to it and by extension their historical memory, and indeed deny their existence as a people. In short, Israel is engaging in cultural genocide against the Palestinian people with the active support of its American and European allies.

This support from the United States and the European Union has taken many forms. Perhaps the most devastating example is the record of systematic vetoes cast by the United States against United Nations Security Council resolutions to date calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. In the most recent of the three vetoes cast by the U.S., on 20 February 2024, the country was alone on the 15-member Council in opposing the call for an immediate ceasefire. The United Kingdom abstained. The United States has also continued to supply weapons to Israel, with President Biden going so far as to invoke extraordinary powers to bypass the usual procedures for such transfers in December 2023. Similarly, European powers have also supplied vital weapons to Israel in the midst of its attacks on Gaza. Even as United Nations experts call for an arms embargo on Israel with some Europeans also calling for a halt in arms exports, the U.S. continues to plan for additional military aid to Israel.

Since the beginning of the current war, estimates of the extent and depth of the destruction are devastating. According to the 9 January 2024 Statement of the Arab Regional Group at the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) “more than 200 of the 325 registered sites in Gaza considered of national or global historic, archaeological, natural, religious and humanitarian importance have been destroyed or severely damaged by the Israeli military.” These sites include, among many others:

  • archaeological and cultural heritage sites stretching back 4,000 years, including remains from the myriad empires that conquered and settled Gaza;
  • mosques and churches, some among the oldest in the world;
  • archives rich with historical documents and municipal records;
  • museums large and small filled with holdings from across the centuries and representing both Gaza’s long history and its rich popular culture and traditions;
  • community centers, serving as gathering places and venues for art shows, musical events, and poetry readings; and
  • libraries, some in mosques and universities, others smaller and local, rich with resources and open to provide books and literacy to all.

Even community graveyards, the most tangible and personal evidence of affective ties to place and heritage have been bulldozed or bombed. A full accounting of the cultural destruction in Gaza can be made only once there is a lasting ceasefire and it becomes possible for international and Palestinian investigators to undertake comprehensive documentation. In the meantime, we provide in the annex to this document what can only be a partial, and most certainly already – given the continuing bombing and shelling – out-of-date list of sites that have been completely or partially destroyed.

These institutions and resources, which underpin the sense of community and shared history and identity of the Palestinians of Gaza (as well as the West Bank and the diaspora), have been and continue to be deliberately destroyed as part of an intentional policy, voiced clearly by multiple Israeli politicians and military figures since early in this conflict, of completely destroying Gaza and precluding any possibility of a meaningful “return” and rebuilding by its forcibly displaced and decimated population.

This deliberate destruction of Gaza’s human and cultural heritage constitutes war crimes and clear breaches of several international conventions including the Fourth Geneva Convention,[1] the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property,[2] the International Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage,[3] and the protections of customary international humanitarian law.[4] These war crimes are in addition to the violations of the laws of war and the prohibition on genocide that are the subject of current investigations before the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court.

The Board of Directors and the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association therefore:

  • Condemn the ongoing genocidal violence against the Palestinian people and their cultural heritage and call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire;
  • Call for the urgent and durable protection of the Palestinian people, land, and heritage and the immediate provision of all necessary humanitarian supplies together with unfettered access of all relevant international humanitarian agencies to come to the assistance of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip;
  • Call on the United States government to desist from any further arms transfers or military assistance to Israel and to support United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding an immediate ceasefire and unimpeded humanitarian assistance;
  • Call upon the relevant United Nations and other international agencies to send investigative teams and assessment missions to Gaza to work with Gazan specialists to survey and fully document the destruction, and to determine next steps in the process of recovery, reconstruction, and preservation of what remains; and
  • Call upon the international donor community to urgently and swiftly provide the funds needed to undertake the herculean tasks of documenting the destruction of Palestinian heritage in the Gaza Strip and beginning the rebuilding and rehabilitation of the cultural heritage sites and sector, along with the civilian infrastructure of the territory.
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