(NEW YORK)— Alongside the devastating human toll, PEN America said today it is deeply concerned about the destruction of, and damage to educational and cultural sites in Gaza, including museums, libraries, churches, mosques, cultural centers, and schools, as a result of the Israeli bombardment during the Israel/Hamas war.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that at least 88 mosques and three churches have been damaged since the war began. OCHA also reported that 339 educational facilities have been damaged. Heritage for Peace, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of culture in conflict, released a report with a list of 104 archeological sites that were damaged or destroyed by Israeli missile strikes since the war began on October 7 when Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 civilians. The report states that both the Omari Mosque and the Jabaliya Byzantine Church have been completely destroyed.

The Omari Mosque is one of the most important and largest historical mosques in Gaza and dates back to 1200 CE. The Jabaliya Byzantine Church, with origins dating back to 444 BCE, had recently undergone restoration and was opened to the public in early 2022. As two prominent religious structures in Gaza, their destruction highlights the significant cultural loss in the region. NPR, which quoted the report, stated that Israel’s military has not yet commented on the Heritage for Peace report.

The Gaza Municipal library, one of just a few libraries in Gaza, was destroyed by an Israeli missile. According to local government officials, the strike destroyed thousands of books as well as “documents recording [Gaza City’s] history and development.” An air strike also destroyed the Rashad al- Shawa Cultural Center, which hosted a meeting between former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat in 1988. The Center also included a library and a theater.

The specific reasons why these sites were targeted are – as far as we are aware – unknown. The Israeli government has accused Hamas of operating out of civilian structures such as schools, mosques, and hospitals; and of digging underground tunnels under civilian buildings for military use. These practices have been well-documented over time by international organizations and governments. Regardless of Hamas’ use of these sites, it does not relieve Israel of its obligations under international law. Whether the destruction of these sites in the course of Israel’s military operation is in adherence with or a violation of international humanitarian law depends on a set of facts we do not currently know, but regardless, as PEN America we are gravely alarmed by and mourn the loss of these cultural institutions and all that they represent.

“Schools, libraries, mosques, churches, and cultural centers are not just buildings; they are sanctuaries of knowledge, bastions of cultural identity, and beacons of intellectual and artistic freedom. Libraries in particular safeguard cultural heritage and history. For many in Gaza, they represented places to gather, to celebrate, and to learn. To see such cultural institutions in ruins represents a tragic loss for their communities, ” said Liesl Gerntholtz, inaugural director, PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center.

“In moments of conflict, culture takes on even greater weight as a means of reminding us of our shared humanity, and of the stories we tell that can foster empathy and preserve the histories and narratives that might otherwise be lost. We call on the Israeli government and Hamas to urgently meet their international human rights obligations to minimize damage to civilian infrastructure, including buildings of cultural significance. We also call on the international community to help support cultural rehabilitation during postwar reconstruction by providing resources and engaging with cultural groups, including writers, artists, and the creative community.”

Cultural and educational sites are protected by international humanitarian law as part of civilian infrastructure and PEN America calls on the Israeli Defence Force and Hamas to take all necessary steps to protect this infrastructure in line with their international human rights and humanitarian law obligations. We call on all parties to respect international conventions safeguarding cultural heritage including the Hague Convention of 1954.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057