ISIL, Israel and cultural cleansing

When discussing ISIL’s cleansing of pre-Islamic history, we must also consider Israel’s erasure of Palestinian culture.

A man at Iraq''s National Museum in Baghdad walks past two ancient Assyrian human-headed winged bull statues [AP]
A man at Iraq's National Museum in Baghdad walks past two ancient Assyrian human-headed winged bull statues [AP]

“How on earth one manages to mention Israel when discussing #ISIS destroying #Nimrud…smh, unbelievable! @marwanbishara.”

This was one of the reactions I got to my interview about the historic context of the bulldozing of archeological sites in Iraq’s Hatra, Nimrud, and the destruction of various statues in Mosul museum by militants of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

It’s a rather predictable response from a Zionist, but it also shows how so many are in denial over their past and cannot see why the horrors in Iraq and Syria – as ugly as they might be – are neither new nor the exception.

Iraqis mourn destruction of ancient Assyrian statues

As I mentioned during my interview on Al Jazeera, historically speaking, more than a few conquerors have attempted the same or worse when they occupied or colonised others’ lands. Whether that was the Japanese in Korea, the Germans in Poland, the Serbs in Bosnia, the Israelis in Palestine, or westerners in their colonies.

Historical facts

There’s no denying these historical facts; none that cannot be verified with a quick research.

No harm, indeed much good could come of the US, France, England, Russia, Turkey, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, The Netherlands, etc, coming to terms with the dark aspects of their past.

Some nations have acknowledged their past sins while others remain in denial. The same goes for Israel and its Zionist friends.

To their credit, some Israelis have come forward in recent years to speak out on the ethnic and cultural cleansing of Palestine.

The Israelis, known as the new or “revisionist historians”, have defied the national conventional wisdom to expose decades-long state propaganda; one that is taught in Israel as “history”.

Some of these historians have dedicated their research for setting the record straight by exposing the grave historic injustice that resulted from the premeditated or default policies of the Israel’s founders against the indigenous people, the Palestinians.

Others however, while admitting the ethnic and cultural cleaning, are ideological in their approach. They justify the malfeasant policies as necessary for the survival of the “Jewish State”. They argue that the only way to erect a Jewish state was to undo what’s been there before it, hence destroying or erasing much of the Palestinian landscape.

Reconsecration of Palestine

In his book, Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land Since 1948, Meron Benvenisti, an Israeli political scientist and former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, writes:

“The fate of the sites sacred to Muslims in the State of Israel can serve as an example of how victors arrogate for themselves sites that are sacred to their vanquished enemy and adapt them to their own needs, whether for worship or for secular purposes, even turning them to uses that are clearly sacrilegious. If they find no use for them, they leave them deserted and crumbling, and do not allow members of the defeated people to restore them, lest that serve as a ‘precedent’ for their return to the old landscape.”

They justify the malfeasant policies as necessary for the survival of the 'Jewish State'. They argue that the only way to erect a Jewish state was to undo what's been there before it, hence destroying or erasing much of the Palestinian landscape.


Benvenisti who served as head of Jerusalem planning department from 1971-78, continues with the same line of argument under the sub-headline, “Reconsecration by Conqueror”, to make a case for Israel’s disposition of the Palestinians, one that might come as a shock to friends of Israel:

“There was nothing novel about the victorious Jews’ takeover of sites sacred to the Muslims, save for the fact that it was something that might have been plucked from another era; not since the end of the Middle Ages had the civilised world witnessed the wholesale appropriation of the sacred sites of a defeated religious community by members of the victorious one. It’s true that places of worship in many countries have been vandalised – even recently – from the bombing of mosques in Sarajevo in the 1990s and the blowing up of churches by the Bolsheviks following the October Revolution, down to the plundering of churches and monasteries during the French Revolution. But to find accurate parallels for the reconsecration of places of worship by a conqueror, one must go back to Spain or the Byzantine Empire in the middle of the late 15th century.”

Much of these policies designed to erase the Palestinians’ past and introduce a new Israeli reality, that’s based on selective and at times mythical reading of history, ran parallel to forced deportations or denial of return for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

All of which paved the way for the destruction of hundreds of Palestinian towns, villages and communities across Palestine. Since then, Israel has erected several hundred towns and villages in their place.

These inconvenient facts must be annoying or shaming to those who praise Israel as an oasis of civility, the “city on a hill” surrounded by a murderous bunch.

Alas, this is not only history; it’s a continuing tragedy. Today, for example, the Gaza Strip, the world’s oldest, most populated, and impoverished refugee camp; remains under siege by Israel after suffering thousands of casualties from its last military offensive. 

But ISIL has stolen the show for now and it seems to give everyone else a break from international scrutiny.

The Un-Islamic State

As ISIL grabs the limelight and dominates the headlines as the worst offender of civility and human rights, it forsakes other murderers and warmongers from the much-needed public scrutiny.

In a few days, ISIL succeeded in destroying what 14 centuries of Islam has preserved in Iraq. But it’s not alone.

Generally, the practitioners of horror are of two types, thuggish and exhibitionist – medieval style, or, cynical and stealth, modern style.

In that way, ISIL celebrates its horrors; it videotapes and defuses them around the world when other war criminals hide, mystify and camouflage their own crimes.

ISIL terrorises people and destroys their heritage; including bulldozing statues that no one worships, in an attempt to obliterate the past. ISIL is the culmination of multiple failures of our civilisation just as it acts as an affront to civilisation.

And yet, ISIL’s eerie exhibitionism doesn’t mean its victims are “deader” than other victims of say the Assad regime or Israel. Nor is its destruction more destructive.

ISIL’s eschatological theology is no different from other apocalyptical theologies that believe destroying the past helps build a future more united with the divine. In fact, ISIL merely follows in the footsteps of certain Evangelical Christians and Jewish fundamentalists who adhere to such theology.

It says a lot about the state of affairs in the Middle East that the actions of internationally recognised governments are comparable to ISIL’s wandering murderers.

In that sense, ISIL is a symptom of a greater regional ill that requires immediate and comprehensive treatment. Relying on more of the same (Israeli type) militarism and (Iranian-backed) sectarianism that led to the rise of ISIL is no solution.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.