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Gaza unable to crack down on antiquities smuggling

The antiquities that litter the ruins of Gaza are increasingly being trafficked, with the government unable to keep up.
A Palestinian woman wearing a face mask amid the Covid-19 pandemic cleans artifacts at her family-run al-Qarara Cultural Museum, as visitors stopped coming following Gaza authoritiess decision to close tourist places to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, in the southern Gaza Strip on October 19, 2020. (Photo by SAID KHATIB / AFP) (Photo by SAID KHATIB/AFP via Getty Images)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — On Nov. 25, the Crossings and Ports Supervision Department affiliated with Gaza's Ministry of Interior announced it had foiled an attempt to smuggle antiquities through the Rafah crossing.

It reported seizing four ancient coins from a woman who claimed she was given them by a man who had asked her to deliver them to another man on the other side. She also claimed she was unaware the four pieces were antiquities. The case and the confiscated coins were referred to the Tourism and Antiquities Police Department, which arrested the man who had given her the coins.

Jamal Abu Raida, director of the Department of Antiquities at the Hamas-run Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, told Al-Monitor each of the four ancient Greek coins from the period of Alexander the Great is worth around $100,000. He said, “The investigation is ongoing. A number of the defendants in this case confessed to previous successful smuggling operations of coins that were sold abroad for thousands of dollars.”

He said that charges have been filed against several smugglers involved in the case.

“All those who took part in this operation were identified and all pieces were confiscated," he said. "Within two months, three attempts to smuggle artifacts were foiled at the Rafah crossing linking Gaza to Egypt, the Beit Hanoun crossing that connects Gaza with Israel and the Karem Abu Salem crossing on the Gaza Strip-Israel-Egypt border run by Israel and designated for importing and exporting goods with Gaza.”

Gaza's 1929 antiquities law dates back to the era of the British mandate over Palestine and classifies antiquities as public property. The law allows the government to lend archeological pieces to institutions and not citizens. It also sanctions anyone who tries to smuggle antiquities abroad with fines or imprisonment of up to three years.

Abu Raida indicated that some of the law's provisions are ineffective, in particular those defining fines as a punishment, as the fines are greatly outdated and low. The law also fails to properly regulate private museums.

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities acknowledges that pieces have been lost to smuggling, but Abu Raida said it is working to recover them and has made contacts with several entities for their recovery.

“International law criminalizes the sale of antiquities, which are in no way deemed the private property of any citizen,” he said.

Abu Raida said that economic hardships are not a valid reason for smuggling. “This is not a logical justification. Artifacts can only be in the possession of citizens in private museums with the approval of the ministry and for a determined period. They are not the personal property of any citizen who can sell them when in economic distress.”

He indicated that there are 10 private museums in Gaza that display tens of thousands of artifacts, some of them from the Canaan civilization dating back to 4000 BC.

Abu Raida continued, “The ministry has stepped up its periodic inspections of private museums" with agents inspecting the pieces and reminding the directors of the agreements they signed. "The agreement prohibits museum owners from selling or destroying any antiquities and requires them to register any antiquities in their possession, whether acquired through excavation or from citizens. If it appears that a museum owner has sold any antiquity, the ministry will confiscate all of the museum’s pieces. This year, around 1,000 antiquities were confiscated, including precious coins, pottery and ancient swords.”

He explained that some of the museums existed well before the advent of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. They obtained approval from the ministry to keep the pieces they had until the situation settles in the Gaza Strip and a government-affiliated archaeological museum is established to display them. Abu Raida pointed to the difficulty of building such a museum while the government is unable to allocate the budget required.

Walid Al-Akkad, owner of the al-Akkad Museum, told Al-Monitor, “I built the museum in my own house in 1970 as I feared Israel would try to loot the Palestinian antiquities. The Israeli army at the time was bulldozing many areas for security reasons. I would often visit the dredged areas to collect destroyed pieces of antiquities.”

He affirmed all the pieces in the museum are numbered and registered with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. “I fully cooperate with the ministry and abide by its instructions,” he said, though he did admit to purchasing undocumented pieces for the museum. He noted that the oldest pieces at the museum date back to the Canaan era, the oldest civilization in Palestine.

Akkad expressed his profound regret that citizens are using economic need as an excuse to smuggle antiquities. “I exerted tremendous efforts and spent a lot of money on the museum but I would never think of selling any piece. This would be tantamount to a betrayal of the Palestinian homeland, civilization, history and identity.”

“Whenever I hear that a citizen wants to sell an archeological piece I rush to buy it,” he said, adding that prices have now become exorbitant.

Akkad rejects the idea of a new law that would limit the role of private museums, saying, “Ownership of archeological artifacts by citizens would raise awareness of the need to preserve their heritage. Most Israelis have a special corner in their home for displaying Palestinian heritage artifacts and antiquities, which they claim are part of Israeli heritage.”

He concluded, “Every Palestinian home must have a piece of antiquities as a historical evidence of Palestinian heritage."

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