Over the past four months, Institute of Conservation (Icon) members have watched in horror as violence in Israel and Palestine has escalated resulting in increasing numbers of civilian deaths and widescale destruction in Gaza.
As a charity and membership organisation, Icon exists to support the conservation profession in protecting, preserving and promoting our treasured cultural heritage. It is with huge sadness we are witnessing the very real risk of death and displacement experienced by our colleagues in the region as they strive to protect their cultural heritage. As home to some of the oldest churches and mosques in the world and many sites of significant historical importance, some dating back 4,000 years, Gaza has seen many of its museums, heritage sites, and archaeological locations damaged or destroyed.
Therefore, Icon is lending our voice in calling for all parties to uphold international law and urges the cessation of hostilities and recommencement of work towards peace in the region. Following UNESCO’s statement of 25 January 2024 verifying damage to 22 cultural heritage sites in Gaza, it is Icon’s responsibility to highlight the plight of heritage, along with the destruction of numerous centres of Palestinian learning and culture, in addition to the shocking loss of life and ever-present danger to civilians.
Many key heritage sites, impacted by the conflict in Gaza, are recognised and supported by international agencies as being of great value to both Palestinian cultural heritage and to world heritage. The Library of the Great Omari Mosque, for example, was once home to 20,000 rare books and manuscripts. Many of these were lost or destroyed during the Crusades and World War I and the remaining 62 rare books, although digitised and accessible via the British Library, were destroyed in hard copy during a strike on 8 December. Icon brings attention to the 1954 Hague Convention on the Protection of Cultural Heritage in the Event of Armed Conflict and the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, and stands against the destruction of a people’s history and culture as it is held evident in material objects.
Why has Icon decided to release a statement on Gaza now? The statement released by UNESCO on 25 January 2024 verifies damage to 22 heritage sites across Gaza, with some agencies reporting more widespread destruction. Along with other cultural heritage organisations that have recently issued statements, including ICOM and the Museums Association, Icon’s Board of Trustees agree it is important to raise awareness of the plight of heritage in this conflict.
Is making a statement on the situation in Gaza within Icon’s remit? As Icon’s charitable remit includes the safeguarding of cultural heritage, and also the education of the public in this area, it is important for the organisation to play a role in raising awareness of the damage to, and destruction of, cultural heritage in the region and the risk to heritage professionals working there.
How can I support heritage in Gaza? There are a number of international agencies and charities working to support Gaza’s heritage sites and their communities. UNESCO provides regular updates on the situation in the country and the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) has published a list on its website of charity appeals to support people in Gaza more generally.