/ 14 February 2024

Israel’s destruction of archives, libraries strip Gazans of their past

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A demolished six-storey building in the Al-Rimal neighbourhood contains libraries, youth centres, training for university students, and a mosque that was bombed by Israeli aircraft in raids in Gaza City, Gaza, on May 18, 2021. (Photo by Momen Faiz/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Last December I spent numerous hours scouring through South Africa’s anti-apartheid archives in university libraries across the country.

As I encountered each sepia-stained letter, weathered newspaper-clipping, hand-written annotation or glossy-printed pamphlet, I was struck by how powerful and compelling archives are in the preservation of meaning and memory. They represent the stories of struggle, of resistance, of hope and of despair. The archives remain critical to the process of rediscovering the past and reclaiming its truths for the future.

The South African historical archives remain instructive for not only narrating the past but also for providing context about what fuelled the apartheid institutional machinery and how social cleavages of race and class were constructed. They provide complexity and nuance in understanding the enduring effect of racism and the reproduction of injustice and inequality into the contemporary period.

They offer a frankness, a bold, incredulous and ugly truth about the logic that undergirded settler-colonialism and the violence and dispossession of the past. The Hansard papers, which constitute the official parliamentary debates, for example, document with astonishing clarity the vile contempt of the apartheid order and its project of institutionalised racism as it was told by representatives of the government. The ANC publicity and information papers depict the painstaking efforts of the liberation movement to keep alive its project for a national democratic revolution. The archives constitute the South African historical record and are crucial for us to turn to as we constantly self-fashion historical memory and meaning. 

As South Africa embarked on its democratic trajectory, the archives were also instrumental in the process of fostering reconciliation at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC sought to uncover the extent of human rights violations committed during the apartheid era. Without access to these repositories, the TRC’s investigations would have been severely thwarted. Its testimonies depended on evidence and corroboration found in the archives to measure the credibility of its findings. The TRC was no doubt an imperfect process, but the preservation of archives in ensuring some measure of accountability should not be understated. 

As an academic and researcher, who works on South Africa’s anti-apartheid archives, witnessing the egregious destruction of historical record in Gaza is horrific and a calculated erasure. All of Gaza’s 12 universities have been systematically razed, hundreds of its academics targeted and killed and its libraries and archives are being destroyed. 

Since the onset of Israel’s brutal and, according to the International Court of Justice, “plausibly genocidal” assault on Gaza more than 100 days ago, the Central Archives of Gaza have been obliterated, effectively erasing 150 years of records chronicling Gaza’s history. According to a Preliminary Report from Librarians and Archivists with Palestine, tens of libraries have been fully or partially destroyed, and “irreplaceable historic materials have been lost”, including a significant collection of rare books at the Omari Mosque, dating back to the 14th century. 

The report recounts that “the destruction of libraries represents the loss of not only book collections, but the efforts of Gaza’s librarians to acquire, care for, and provide access to reading materials” in the context of the ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip. The report further highlights the “profound impact of this cultural devastation” emphasising that “it not only impoverishes the collective identity of the Palestinian people but also deprives them irreversibly of their history”.

The anti-apartheid archives offer a powerful glimpse into South Africa’s tumultuous and painful past. Trying to preserve such a past is a faint reality for Palestinians in Gaza.

Dr Ayesha Omar is a senior lecturer in political studies at the University of the Witwatersrand and a British Academy International Fellow at SOAS, University of London, working on a new book project on black intellectual history in South Africa. Her book draws from the anti-apartheid archives in South Africa and around the world.