Return to Gaza?

Shellal Mosaic

The Shellal Mosaic was created in AD561 and has been part of the collection of the Australian War Memorial since 1941.

21 August 2011

Diggers accused of ‘plundering’ mosaic from Gaza

With rockets falling over southern Israel other issues tend to be forgotten. However this is my blog not my newspaper and I had already written this piece, so I’ll publish it, anyway.

A few days ago I wrote a letter to the editor of the Age, a major Melbourne newspaper. It concerned an article Diggers accused of ‘plundering’ mosaic from Gaza by Andrew Taylor, August 14, 2011. The gist of the article was that WWI Australian soldiers (colloquelly known as diggers) had knocked-off, filched, purloined, souvenired or otherwise removed a 6th century mosaic from the floor of a church in Gaza, then under Ottoman Turkish sovereignty (not that the Turks were much concerned). Or I suppose to be accurate if the Diggers were there soon to be released from Turkish rule and transferred to the British. You could even make a plausible argument the church was never in Gaza but close to Gaza on what is now Israeli territory.

Taking it was probably a war crime. Now Australia should give it back. To whom, I asked.

Although the article didn’t even mention Israel I thought a return to the real world was warranted so I sent this letter:

Dear Editor,

Mr. Taylor failed to ask a vital question.The mosaic came from a Christian church in Gaza. Who should Australia return it to? Hamas? The Palestinian Authority? The Vatican? Turkey? Israel? Egypt? What if they have doubts the ‘rightful’ owner would protect it?

These are not the Elgin Marbles. For years the British Museum’s excuse was that Greece was run by a military junta. Yet when Greece achieved democracy in 1974 after the Regime of the Colonels other excuses were found of which possession is 9/10th of the Law seemed to be the operative one.

There is no shortage of claimants. Gaza is under control of an Islamic dictatorship as hostile to Christians as it is to Jews. A pre Muslim Byzantine relic only reinforces the unwelcome historical fact that the Arabs were 7th century invaders. Would Hamas, whom Australia regards as terrorists, protect it or would it be an embarrassment? Australia regards the Palestinian Authority not Hamas as the legitimate government but they have no presence or control in Gaza. Would putting it on display in Ramallah be the same as returning it to Gaza?

Perhaps the Australians should look in a Christian direction?The Christians in Gaza are a tiny and fearful persecuted minority. Many or even most would leave if that was in anyway possible. Could Australia bypass governments and declare the remaining 3,500 Christians to be the rightful owners and if so which group? Perhaps this would be a temporary loan from the War Memorial until the last Christian is driven from Gaza? The Vatican could claim spiritual ownership of Christian relics but they represent the Western Roman Empire not the Eastern Byzantine. That eastern Byzantine Empire had its capital in Constantinople renamed Istanbul by its Turkish Muslim invaders and hasn’t existed there since the 15th century.Muslim Turkey might be quite willing, at least for now while still secular, to take and care for the mosaic but could they be the logical owners? Istanbul is even further physically and emotionally from Gaza than Ramallah.

What about other possible claimants? Egypt held Gaza between 1948 and 1967 and at various times in modern and ancient history. A significant number of Gaza’s pre-1948 residents were Egyptians or their descendants who had fled political turmoil in Muhammad Ali’s Egypt. However the relations modern Egypt has with their own indigenous Christians is strained and they currently have other things on their mind. Even Israel would conscientiously take care of the floor as they have with other non Jewish religious and historical artefacts in their possession and is the only place in the Middle East where the Christians are actually growing and thriving but they left Gaza in 2005. The Arab world would rather see this ‘foreign’ reminder of another time broken into individual stones than in the hands of the Jews. Somehow I don’t think Australia has the courage to give it to them.

If the answer to this problem is ‘don’t know’ the best and safest place for the Shellal Mosaic is still Canberra.

About David Guy

B.A./B.C.A. (Communication and Media Arts) University of Wollongong, AUSTRALIA M.A. in Government (Diplomacy and Conflict Studies) Inter Disciplinary Center, Herzliya, ISRAEL Twitter @5MFI
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