Destruction of Palestinian Cultural Heritage: The Old City of Nablus

January 09, 2016

“We know that we share with those affected the knowledge that this aggression against people and its heritage are equal parts of the same strategy: to eliminate a race or group of people.”1

Frequently Asked Questions

Israel has destroyed or damaged Palestinian historical, cultural and religious sites throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territories since the uprising against occupation began in September, 2000. Among the cultural sites that suffered the most damage is the Old City of Nablus whose cultural heritage includes architectural treasures dating to Roman, Byzantine, Crusader, Mamluk and Ottoman eras. The destruction and damage that Israel has inflicted upon the Old City of Nablus will adversely affect the future Palestinian tourism industry.

Historic monuments in the Old City of Nablus include 9 mosques (4 built on Byzantine churches and 5 from the early Islamic period), an Ayyubid mausoleum, the 17th century St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church and Ottoman-era structures such as 2 major khans2 (including the Khan al-Wasalat which was built in the 18th century with remains from the 12th century), 10 Turkish bath houses, 30 olive oil soap factories (7 of which were functioning), 2,850 historic houses and family complexes. Eighteen monuments within the Old City date back to the Byzantine era and Crusader period.3

The city of Nablus has a population of 113,000 Palestinians, of whom approximately 23,000 live in the Old City.4 Approximately 100 families have been made homeless as a result of damage and destruction from Israel’s invasions and aerial bombardment.

1. What Palestinian cultural heritage sites in the Nablus Old City have been destroyed by Israel?

  • Al-Shuby House: An Ottoman-era residential complex composed of three connected houses. It was home to nine low-income families. On April 6, 2003 eight people from Samir Shuby’s family were killed (three children, three women, including one pregnant women, and two men) when an Israeli bulldozer attempted to clear a path through the homes, in order for a tank to enter the narrow Old City streets. Residents reported that the Israeli Army did not warn the residents to leave their houses prior to the assault. Amnesty International found that “the IDF clearly failed to ensure that there were no people in the house when they destroyed it.”5 The building was totally destroyed. An elderly couple, Abdullah Shuby and his wife Shamsa, were discovered alive after eight days of being trapped beneath the rubble. The destruction affected the structural stability of the whole residential block.
  • Al-Fatimiyeh School: An Ottoman-era preparatory school for 500 girls. During the first few days of the April 2002 invasion, Israeli army bulldozers ripped holes in the walls damaging the structural stability of the building. The students were transferred to another school.
  • Al-Khadra Mosque: The oldest mosque in Nablus, the Al-Khadra Mosque was converted from a church to a mosque in 1187. It consists of a Mamluk minaret, intricate details of stone and hand-carved wooden doors. The main prayer hall (150 square meters) was destroyed and parts of the roof at the western side collapsed as a result of Israeli bombardment.
  • Kanaan Soap Factory: Nablus is famous for its production of soap, an industry dating back to the 10th century, and the Ottoman-era Kanaan Soap Factory was completely destroyed by an Israeli F-16 missile attack in April 2002. The destroyed site consists of two soap factory buildings, Kannan and al-Nabulsi and a group of houses belonging to the Shabaru , Istetaiyeh, Shakhsheer, Zatar, Khalili, Johari, Younis and Alfi families. The Khan al Wakalat and the door and part of the interior of the 17th century St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church were also destroyed.
  • The Hosh Freitekh: An Ottoman-era Hosh (a housing complex surrounding a courtyard) consisting of two houses (belonging to the Okasha and Freitekh families) housing 20 people. On April 3, 2002, two adult sisters Rasha and Zaha Freitekh were killed and a third sister, Ra’eda, remains paralyzed as a result of a nighttime Israeli missile attack. The Hosh is no longer fit for human habitation.
  • Al-Jadeedeh Hammam (Public Bath): One of eight traditional Hammams in the Old City, the Al-Jadeedeh Hamman dates back to 1790. Two Israeli missiles tore two holes in the roof of the main hot bathing room. As a result of the damage, the Hammam has been closed to the public.

2. When did Israel cause the damage to the Nablus cultural heritage sites?

Between April 3 and 21, 2002 Israeli military forces carried out an 18-day air and ground bombardment of Nablus, primarily in the Old City where approximately 23,000 Palestinians live. According to the Nablus municipality, during the first invasion in April 2002, roughly 400 structures in the Old City of Nablus were damaged or destroyed by Israeli bombardment. During the second invasion of Nablus (between May 31 and June 6, 2002) and then from June 21 until October 12, 2002 during which time Nablus residents were placed under 24-hour curfew for more than 100 consecutive days, another 1,200 structures were damaged. By March 2003, another 592 buildings were damaged. Nearly 40% of the structures damaged during the April 2002 invasion were owned by businessmen, thereby adversely affecting Nablus’s economy.6

3. What is the extent of the damage?

Initial Palestinian and international findings (as of early May 2002) estimated the damage to the Old City of Nablus at approximately US$42 million.7 The Nablus municipality estimates that damage to the Old City of Nablus from April 2002 until March 2003 totals $54 million.

4. Wasn’t the destruction necessary to “fight terror”?

According to Amnesty International, “A number of religious and historical sites were partially destroyed or severely damaged and it frequently appeared to be wanton destruction without military necessity. …. There appeared to be no absolute necessity for targeting any of these buildings … the destruction of these historic sites must be questioned.”8

The Amnesty International report concludes: “During military operations, commercial, religious, cultural and civic buildings were destroyed without absolute military necessity. Nablus suffered particularly severe destruction not only of its commercial buildings but also of religious and cultural buildings dating back several centuries.”9

5. What did the international community do about Israel’s destruction of Palestinian cultural heritage sites?

Although the World Cultural Heritage Committee meeting at UNESCO headquarters in April 11, 2002 condemned Israel’s destruction of Palestinian cultural heritage sites, the destruction went largely unreported and unnoticed. The international community took no punitive or tangible other measures against Israel, nor did the international community make any effort to add Palestinian cultural heritage sites to UNESCO’s “List of World Heritage in Danger”.

6. Is Israel’s destruction of Palestinian cultural sites legal?

Israel’s destruction of Palestinian cultural sites violates:

  1. The Fourth Geneva Convention.
  2. The Hague Convention.

Fourth Geneva Convention 1949

"The Occupying Power must also … not destroy real or personal property of individuals, organizations or public authorities unless such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations." (Article 33)

"Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social and cooperative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations." (Article 53)

"Grave breaches to which the preceding Article relates shall be those involving any of the following acts, if committed against persons or property protected by the present Convention …. extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly." (Article 147)

Hague Convention and Protocol of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict

Protection of Cultural Property in Occupied Territory: “ … a Party in occupation of the whole or part of the territory of another Party shall prohibit and prevent in relation to the Occupied Territory . . . any alteration to, or change of use of, cultural property which is intended to conceal or destroy cultural, historical or scientific evidence." (Article 9.1(c)).

For more information

  • 1. Resolution on Information as an Instrument for Protection Against War Damages to the Cultural Heritage, Adopted at an expert meeting convened by the Swedish Central Board of National Antiquities, the Swedish National Commission for UNESCO and ICOMOS Sweden, June 10, 1994 Sweden.
  • 2. A khan is a building that was used as a motel for tradesmen, also sheltering goods and animals. A khan typically includes two floors, a domed corridor and a courtyard. The first floor is used for goods and animals and the second floor is used for hosting travelers and tradesmen.
  • 3. Riwaq Database, Center for Architectural Conservation
  • 4. Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Population of Palestinian Communities, 1997-2010 (Ramallah).
  • 5. Amnesty International, Shielded from Scrutiny: IDF Violations in Jenin and Nablus, p. 30, (November 2002)
  • 6. Riwaq Database, Center for Architectural Conservation
  • 7. Local Aid Co-Ordination Committee (United Nations, World Bank & Government of Norway), Damage to Civilian Infrastructure and Institutions in the West Bank Estimated at $361 Million, May 15, 2002 estimated damage at $42.5 million. The Palestinian National Committee of ICOMOS, Destruction in the West Bank, April 2002, ICOMOS Heritage at Risk Report, June 2002 estimated damage at $41.5 million.
  • 8. Supra note 4, at 37
  • 9. Supra note 4, at 45
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