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Gaza's archaeological discoveries left vulnerable

Archaeological discoveries in the Gaza Strip continue to be neglected amid the government’s failure to protect them, while the citizens who often make these discoveries aren't compensated.
The son of Palestinian farmer Salman al-Nabahin uses a sponge to uncover Byzantine mosaics.

Every archaeological discovery in Gaza reveals a bit more about the civilizations that inhabited the land. These discoveries include mosaics, manuscripts, artifacts and aesthetic elements belonging to mosques and churches. The majority of such discoveries are often found by civilians by chance as a result of the great urban sprawl inside the enclave and in the absence of official excavation and research work on archaeology in Gaza.

Most recently, Salman al-Nabahin, a 51-year-old farmer, discovered a 500-square-meter Byzantine mosaic floor while he was trying to plant an olive tree with his son on the land he inherited from his father in al-Bureij in south Gaza.

Nabahin told Al-Monitor, “Seven months ago while trying to plant an olive tree, I hit something hard in the ground. My son, Mohammed, who is 16, and I tried to dig to see what it was and we found drawings of colorful birds and large animals.”

He added, “I continued digging for months until a large mosaic panel was revealed before my eyes. I then headed to the Ministry of Antiquities and Tourism and asked officials to implement the law, which means they had to evaluate the discovery, pay me a financial reward and give me alternative land. However, the ministry never got back to me and never sent any official papers, although many people from the ministry and the media visited the site.”

Nabahin added, “This is a national discovery. I want to preserve the antiquities of my country and I did not want to tamper with these mosaics. I told the Ministry of Antiquities in Gaza to bring whomever they want to see it but kindly apply the law. The ministry simply sent tourism police forces to question me about the discovery and whether I found pots and pottery or artifacts, trying to corner me about preserving and not tampering with them.”

“Finally, the tourism police forces came and told me that my land was confiscated by a decision of the [Palestine] Land Authority and that I would be compensated soon and a job would be provided for my son. When I asked about my land compensation, they said it would be in the remote border areas of Netzarim where the old Israeli settlements were in place. I rejected this proposal, and they later told me they could not employ my son because he was still underage," he said.

The legal procedures between the ministry and Nabahin are still pending. After every archaeological discovery inside the Gaza Strip, the Ministry of Antiquities — in cooperation with the Ministry of Local Government, the area’s municipality, and the Palestine Land Authority — acquire the land where the discovery was made in accordance with the law on antiquities that has been in force in Gaza since the British Mandate of 1929

Meanwhile, the West Bank applies a different law that was amended in 2018.

Article 5 of the British law obligates the ruling authority to provide financial compensation and alternative land for the person who made the discovery on his own property — but this is never applied. Several archaeological sites are still under legal procedures between government agencies and citizens, under the pretext that the government in Gaza does not have the budget for compensation.

The archaeological site of Tell Aslan, which was discovered in 2012 in the town of Beit Lahia in south Gaza, is also in legal limbo. The site includes a mosaic floor belonging to a Byzantine monastery, which a citizen discovered while he was doing construction work on his house. 

When he informed the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, it ordered him to suspend work on the site and never did any further excavations due to a lack of budget. The family has been at odds with the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities since then, as it has yet to compensate them for their land.

A source from the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities told Al-Monitor that archaeological sites in the Gaza Strip are subject to many violations, especially by antiques dealers.

In October 2019, Israel announced the seizure of 69 ancient coins smuggled from Gaza by influential dealers or businessmen.

The Gaza government has seized archaeological sites without compensating land owners, in addition to not compensating the people who discovered artifacts such as the Apollo statue, archaeological pottery and the Canaanite statue.

Most recently, the archaeological area of Tell al-Ajjul, which dates back to the Bronze Age, was destroyed to house Hamas government employees, in violation of Islamic law and Palestinian law.

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