By Sheera Frenkel
Times of London, April 18, National Edition, pg. 36,
Palestinian militants in Gaza have started to bulldoze part of a complex of ancient ruins, including the remains of a Roman temple, to build what a UN agency described as “a terrorist training ground”.
Part of the 3,000-year-old Anthedon harbour was seized last month by the Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip in defiance of the Palestinian Authority based in the West Bank. Last year the mainstream Palestinian administration nominated the ruins as a Unesco World Heritage site.
“It is devastating, very devastating to hear this site is under threat after all the efforts we made to have it recognised by Unesco,” said one Palestinian official based in the West Bank. “It makes us look bad, the Palestinians, that we cannot preserve our own sites.”
The ruins, which were discovered in 1997 but never fully excavated due to the political instability and violence in the Gaza Strip, boast exquisite mosaics and ancient pillars.
Muhammad Khela, a Deputy Minister of Tourism in the Gaza Strip, told the Al-Monitor news site that his ministry had agreed to the area being used to train militants.
“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 used without harming it,” Mr Khela said, adding that if the ruins had been important to the international community, Unesco would have already begun an excavation there.
Ahmed al-Bursh, spokesman for the Hamas Tourism Ministry in Gaza, confirmed that the militants had official approval to train there. “A Palestinian faction asked to use a small part of the location because they already had a training camp next to it and they wanted to expand the training location,” he said. “They did this in co-ordination with our ministry and we agreed as long as they did not use weapons there or dig and damage the site.”
He stressed that while the training camp posed “no harm to the historical site”, the ruins had been damaged during Israel’s last two military offensives in Gaza.
Another official in Gaza, who did not want to be named, said that the land was first seized by the al-Qassam Brigades, a rival militant group, in 2002, who built a small training camp on the edge of the ruins.
“They have now muscled a much larger section there, I would say they are now using 30 per cent of the area we know to be the ruins as a training camp,” he said, adding that he was certain that “important archaeology and history is being destroyed”.
UN Watch, a Geneva-based monitoring group, sent a letter this week to Irina Bokova, the Unesco director-general, calling for immediate action to stop the bulldozing of the port “for use as a terrorist training camp”.
A copy was sent to the European Union foreign policy chief, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, calling on the EU to take action.
“Unesco’s admission of Palestine as a member state in 2011, which caused the organisation to lose almost a quarter of its budget when the US suspended its contributions, was justified as a measure to help protect world heritage sites in Palestinian areas,” the letter said. “Yet as Hamas turns a cultural heritage site into a terrorist training ground – the antithesis of culture – the silence of Unesco now places the very credibility of the organisation at stake.” A Unesco spokesman declined to comment.