On a sandy Rafah hilltop in mid-April, a few workers were digging carefully into the dry land.
The excavators, their tools basic, were from Gaza’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. The site they were digging — at 40 acres, Tel Rafah is among the largest of Gaza’s 30-odd archaeological sites — is believed to contain evidence of human settlement going back more than 4,000 years.
It is sites like these that make Gaza unique, a treasure trove for archaeologists, historians and, potentially, the local economy. Military occupation, economic warfare, violence and a blockade going back nearly a decade mean that potential lies untapped even as it points to a possible way forward for one of the world’s most impoverished areas.
A crossroads for civilizations trading with each other for thousands of years, Gaza’s history is storied. Palestinians in Gaza will proudly tell you that no one has managed to rule them long. They will cite the Ottomans, the British, the Egyptians and now the Israelis.
But they could go back even further. Settlement can be traced as far back as 3,500 BCE to an ancient Egyptian maritime settlement that itself was preceded by a local Canaanite population. Gaza (Hazzatu) was mentioned in the Amarna letters, ancient correspondence from the 14th century BCE. It is depicted, too, on the 6th century Madaba Mosaic Map in Jordan.
An important center for trade, many fought over Gaza. The Philistines, the Pharaohs and Nebuchadnezzar all invaded, Gerald Butt notes in his book Life at the Crossroads. Alexander the Great laid siege for two months and destroyed Gaza City in 332 BCE. The Romans took the city and gave it to Herod. Arabs, Turks and Mamluks all had their time there. Egypt’s Muhammad Ali controlled it in 1771 and Napoleon in 1799.
It is not surprising that scholars of the ancient Middle East and archaeologists want to go there and get their hands dirty. This history could be of immense benefit to Palestinians in Gaza with the potential tourism industry it might create.
But that is only what could lie ahead. Occupied by Israel since 1967, mostly Israeli archaeologists have enjoyed the chance to explore Gaza. Outside of a brief period after the signing of the Oslo accords in the mid-1990s, the tourism industry has not thrived here in recent years. The land remains occupied, fought over and out of bounds.
The Israeli-imposed siege, almost a decade long, has undermined the economy of the coastal enclave and wrought damage to Gaza’s ancient sites, said Jamal Abu Raida, a director at the tourism ministry in the territory.
“Over the past nine years, the ministry has not been able to reconstruct, repair or properly excavate archaeological sites in Gaza,” Abu Raida told The Electronic Intifada. “This is mainly because of the border closures and frequent Israeli wars against the territory. We lack modern tools, we lack materials to help preserve what is excavated.”
During the same period, Gaza suffered three devastating military assaults. Damage to archaeological sites was inevitable. Abu Raida said Israeli bombardments in both the 2012 and 2014 campaigns near the Mamluk al-Basha Palace, for example, in the heart of Gaza City, caused cracks in the walls of the nearly 800-year-old structure.
Despite these remarkable sites, there is virtually no tourism industry at present in Gaza. Crossing to and from the coastal enclave is determined by Israel in the north and Egypt in the south and is mostly prohibited. Sea access remains patrolled and prevented by Israel. The airport is a bombed ruins.
More surprising, perhaps, is that a tourism industry started to sprout after the Oslo accords and the advent of the Palestinian Authority. According to Abu Raida at the tourism ministry, tourism contributed some five percent of the GDP in the years 1995 to 2006, mostly made up of Palestinian citizens of Israel.
A hopeful industry
Asad Ashour, a retired Gaza historian, told The Electronic Intifada that during this period foreign archaeological delegations, mainly French, came to Gaza to discover and dig sites. It was in collaboration with one of these teams that local excavators found the Tel Umm al-Amr site.
Indeed, hotels proliferated on Gaza’s beachfront in preparation for visitors that since 2007 simply haven’t been able to come.
“Our business has been decimated [by the 2007 siege],” said Raed Hussein, the manager of the five-story Adam Hotel on the Gaza City beachfront.
“It used to be different. We had hundreds of Palestinians from Israel, and Palestinians from other countries as well. Even locals would stay here in holiday times. Business was good.”
There is still business, but it is what Hussein refers to as “political tourism”: journalists, solidarity teams, international humanitarian workers.
The downturn hasn’t stopped some from planning for the future.
“We are in the process of developing, as best as we can, our human resources and facilities, said Samir S. Skaik, deputy chairman of a hospitality industry association in Gaza.
“We have the potential to be one of the foremost tourist destinations in the region. We hope for the best and for peace to replace tension here.”
Ashour said Gaza’s rich history could act as a magnet for tourism, though he acknowledged that such prospects were entirely unrealistic absent any political solution to secure Palestinian rights. He also held out hope for a proper national museum in Gaza to host the coastal enclave’s many treasures, even though it might be damaged in any new Israeli assault.
There is currently no such publicly funded museum. There are, however, an increasing number of private ones, set up by individual collectors and enthusiasts.
In Khan Younis, in Gaza’s south, Marwan Shahwan, a 49-year-old carpenter, opened a private museum in his basement 13 years ago.
Showing this reporter around, Shahwan clearly delighted in pointing out what he said were ancient clay pots and swords. And it is nothing if not an eclectic collection.
“Over here,” Shahwan said, pointing to items at a corner of the basement, “is part of the Ottoman railway from the start of the last century.”
There are “at least” four privately owned museums in Gaza, said Abu Raida of the tourism ministry. But he brushed off concerns that such private initiatives — where priceless artifacts are handled by untrained hands — could do more harm than good.
“The ministry is aware of every single object in these museums. In addition, owners are very cooperative. If the ministry holds exhibitions, they will lend their items,” he said.
Ultimately, said Abu Raida, the aim is to build a proper national museum. There are, however, simply no resources for such a project in Gaza.
“The ministry itself shares offices with the ministry of agriculture,” lamented Abu Raida, who estimated the cost of a national museum to be “at least” $10 million.
“We have been in constant contact with potential donors such as UNESCO [the UN’s educational, scientific and cultural agency] with our proposals for such a museum. But since 2007 there has been no progress.”
In 2007, Hamas, after winning parliamentary elections the year prior, ousted disgruntled Fatah fighters from Gaza in an eruption of internecine fighting that left a political division yet to be properly addressed. A faltering 2014 unity government has not seen convincing steps toward bridging the divide, though Abu Raida still voiced shock at how little effect that government has had.
“Even after the establishment of a consensus government in 2014, nothing has changed. No one has even contacted us about [the national museum].”
Rami Almeghari is a journalist and university lecturer based in the Gaza Strip.