Forensic Architecture (FA), a London-based research agency that investigates human rights abuses through environmental modeling and analysis, has released findings from its first archeology project.
The new report, titled “Living Archeology in Gaza,” examines Israel’s repeated attacks on an important Palestinian archaeological site in the Gaza Strip.
The FA has tracked surveillance of activists and journalists and documented Syria’s use of chemical weapons, among other projects, and last month the agency won a 2022 Peabody Award.
The latest project focuses on the ancient city of Anthedon, Gaza’s earliest known seaport, inhabited from 800 BCE to 1100 CE. The site features ancient Greek, Roman, Hellenistic, Byzantine and Islamic buildings and antiquities. In 1996, excavations unearthed a Byzantine cemetery and the area was selected for provisional inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 2012.
FA used the results of the 1995-2005 excavations led by Professor Jean-Baptiste Humbert of the French Biblical and Archaeological School of Jerusalem to map the construction and damage to the ancient city, creating 3D renderings of the ruins.
The report says repeated shelling by Israeli forces and forced population density (and subsequent construction) due to the occupation have “placed this unique site under existential threat”. The report also shows the damage caused by rapidly progressing coastal erosion in Anthedon, which is located along the Mediterranean Sea.
Using photographs and videos of airstrikes and aerial photographs of craters, FA mapped where the archaeological site has been bombed in years past. The report also chronicles the damage caused to Anthedon during the May 2021 Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, which killed 256 Palestinians and injured around 2,000 others.
The United Nations International Criminal Court classifies the destruction of historical monuments as a war crime, and the FA’s research is accompanied by a legal report by the Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq which explains how these attacks violate international law regarding armed conflict and human rights.
The Al-Haq report also cites damage to other cultural heritage sites in the May 2021 strikes. Tell Umm Amer, first settled in 400-600 BCE, and the Monastery of Saint Hilarion, the one of the first Christian settlements in Palestine, both suffered damage.
In addition to reporting Israeli offensive attacks, the FA points to the intentional preservation of similar cultural heritage sites on Israeli territory. Israel’s Apollonia and Caesarea national parks contain elements of Byzantine and Roman cultures, as does Anthedon, but are protected by Israeli conservation efforts.
The Al-Haq report accuses Israel of “a series of illegal acts” targeting Palestinian cultural heritage.
“These actions have included the removal of objects of scientific, historical and archaeological interest; conduct illegal archaeological excavations whose results directly serve Israel’s colonial narrative, and strategically target and destroy all cultural sites that are not directly exploitable to confirm this narrative,” the report states.
“Through its policies and practices, Israel targets cultural heritage sites with the sole objective of establishing its cultural hegemony over Palestinian lands, without the Palestinian people,” it reads.
This is not the first time that Israel has been criticized for discretionary archaeology. In 2019, the nation was accused of a political agenda for digging an ancient pilgrimage route to Jerusalem under a Muslim neighborhood in the city. Since 1967, Israel has conducted hundreds of archaeological digs in the occupied West Bank, and the activities carried out there by the Israeli army’s archaeological unit have been denounced by Palestinian archaeologists. (In 2018, Hyperallergic reported on archaeological digs in the West Bank for Christian artifacts funded by evangelical groups in the United States.)
The FA ends its report by detailing the environmental ramifications of increased construction, citing the findings of a 25-year study by the European Space Agency and the United Nations Development Programme. The 2020 study shows severe erosion caused by construction along Gaza’s coastline.
“The coastline of the Gaza Strip has undergone severe changes over the past decades, threatening the livelihoods of their coastal inhabitants,” FA says.