Lebanon Historic Sites Again Escape Conflict Unscathed

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Originally a major Phoenician city that ruled the seas and founded prosperous colonies such as Cadiz and Carthage, Tyre's historical role declined when the Crusades ended in the 13th century.

But like Baalbek, the city has important archaeological remains, mostly from Roman times.

History in Danger?

Shortly after the Israel-Hezbollah conflict broke out, acting Lebanese Foreign Minister Tareq Mitri, who also serves as minister of culture, issued a desperate plea to the UN to help protect the country's historic and archaeological treasures.

He cited the 1954 Hague Convention concerning the safeguarding of cultural assets in times of armed conflict.

"In the name of the Lebanese government, I urge you to intervene to bring an end to the bombardments that threaten the World Heritage sites of Baalbek and Tyre by applying UNESCO conventions for the protection of such sites in time of war," Mitri wrote to UNESCO Director General Koichiro Matsuura.

"The intensive bombardments are targeting areas immediately adjacent to these sites. Already, fragile ancient structures are being threatened by repeated explosions, and they risk being hit directly," he wrote.

"Your immediate intervention is necessary to prevent this situation from becoming catastrophic."

While the battles raged, Lebanese Culture Ministry Director General Omar Halablab told National Geographic News that Israeli military action might also threaten historic centers, traditional architecture, ancient bridges, hilltop castles, and tels (mounds) with high archaeological potential.

During the conflict, the Israeli military carried out land-, sea-, and air-based operations as well as commando raids across Lebanon, including in Baalbek and Tyre.

Rules of Engagement

Following Mitri's appeal for protection, UNESCO informed the Lebanese government that all efforts would be made to prevent harm to Lebanese cultural sites.

Lebanon itself made no attempt to relay its concerns to Israel, as the two states maintain no formal contacts even during times of peace.

UNESCO, however, informed the Israeli government of Lebanon's concerns regarding harm to its cultural sites.

On July 31 UNESCO Director Matsuura convened a special session of UNESCO's Middle East Task Force to discuss the crisis. On August 11 he issued an urgent call to protect heritage sites in Lebanon and Israel, emphasizing that "the heritage site of Tyre is under threat."

Following the cease-fire, four UNESCO experts began a five-day mission in Lebanon, with plans to meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and members of his government to determine how to help recovery efforts.

"In view of the situation in the field, it is now possible for UNESCO to start assisting Lebanon in its early recovery efforts, particularly with regard to cultural heritage and education," Matsuura announced.

The mission also included visits to some of the country's other World Heritage sites, including Byblos, which was affected by the oil spill from a power station hit in an Israeli strike in mid-July.

Cultural heritage will be among the main topics on the agenda of a UNESCO meeting with Mitri.

Also on August 21, the government official charged with reconstruction of the country—Fadel al-Shalaq, head of the Lebanese Council for Development and Reconstruction—told CNN that the recent conflict was the most devastating since the 1975 Lebanese civil war. But he did not mention any harm to cultural sites.

Lebanese Culture Ministry Director Halablab told National Geographic News by email that the Israeli military has not targeted such sites. He also confirmed al-Shalaq's statement that no damage was caused to cultural sites during the war.

Breaking Convention?

According to international laws, both sides of a conflict have obligations toward their historic treasures.

While attacking forces are forbidden from targeting cultural sites, their opponents are restricted from using such sites for military purposes.

The Israeli military says it makes all efforts to avoid harming cultural assets and charges Hezbollah with exploiting the sites' international legal protection.

In a statement issued to National Geographic News, the military said its combat operations are "subject to the statutes of international law. These statutes grant special protection to cultural assets and set highly restrictive conditions according to which it is permitted to strike such assets.

"The Israel Defense Forces sees itself as obligated to act within these restrictive conditions," the statement continued. "The IDF employs caution to refrain from striking cultural assets ... and does not carry out operations aimed at causing harm to cultural assets.

"Regretfully, the terrorists against whom the IDF is fighting do not hesitate to act from within or with the cover of cultural assets ... The blame for all risk of harm to cultural assets is thus fully borne by the terror groups."

But when asked if he was aware of Hezbollah's use of Lebanese cultural sites for the storage of weapons, for shelter from Israeli strikes, or as training facilities, Lebanon's Halablab responded: "No."

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