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John Pilger on the Dagan Plan and Gaza under fire

Every war Israel has waged since 1948 has had the same objective: expulsion of the native people. 

"When the truth is replaced by silence," the Soviet dissident Yevgeny Yevtushenko said, "the silence is a lie." It may appear that the silence on Gaza is broken. The small cocoons of murdered children, wrapped in green, together with boxes containing their dismembered parents, and the cries of grief and rage of everyone in that death camp by the sea can be witnessed on al-Jazeera and YouTube, even glimpsed on the BBC. But Russia's incorrigible poet was not referring to the ephemera we call news; he was asking why those who knew the why never spoke it, and so denied it. Among the Anglo-American intelligentsia, this is especially striking. It is they who hold the keys to the great storehouses of knowledge: the historiographies and archives that lead us to the why.

They know that the horror now raining on Gaza has little to do with Hamas or, absurdly, "Israel's right to exist". They know the opposite to be true: that Palestine's right to exist was cancelled 61 years ago and that the expulsion and, if necessary, extinction of the indigenous people was planned and executed by the founders of Israel. They know, for example, that the infamous "Plan D" of 1947-48 resulted in the murderous depopulation of 369 Palestinian towns and villages by the Haganah (Israeli army) and that massacre upon massacre of Palestinian civilians in such places as Deir Yassin, al-Dawayima, Eilaboun, Jish, Ramle and Lydda are referred to in official records as "ethnic cleansing". Arriving at a scene of this carnage, David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, was asked by a general, Yigal Allon: "What shall we do with the Arabs?" Ben-Gurion, reported the Israeli historian Benny Morris, "made a dismissive, energetic gesture with his hand and said, 'Expel them'".

The order to expel an entire population "without attention to age" was signed by Yitzhak Rabin, a future prime minister promoted by the world's most efficient propaganda as a peacemaker. The terrible irony of this was addressed only in passing, such as when the Mapam party co-leader Meir Ya'ari noted "how easily" Israel's leaders spoke of how it was "possible and permissible to take women, children and old men and to fill the road with them because such is the imperative of strategy. And this we say . . . who remember who used this means against our people during the [Second World] War . . . I am appalled."

Every subsequent "war" Israel has waged has had the same objective: the expulsion of the native people and the theft of more and more land. The lie of David and Goliath, of perennial victim, reached its apogee in 1967 when the propaganda became a righteous fury that claimed the Arab states had struck first against Israel. Since then, mostly Jewish truth-tellers such as Avi Shlaim, Noam Chomsky, Tanya Reinhart, Neve Gordon, Tom Segev, Uri Avnery, Ilan Pappé and Norman Finkelstein have undermined this and other myths and revealed a state shorn of the humane traditions of Judaism, whose unrelenting militarism is the sum of an expansionist, lawless and racist ideology called Zionism. "It seems," wrote the Israeli historian Pappé on 2 January, "that even the most horrendous crimes, such as the genocide in Gaza, are treated as discrete events, unconnected to anything that happened in the past and not associated with any ideology or system . . . Very much as the apartheid ideology explained the oppressive policies of the South African government, this ideology - in its most consensual and simplistic variety - allowed all the Israeli governments in the past and the present to dehumanise the Palestinians wherever they are and strive to destroy them. The means altered from period to period, from location to location, as did the narrative covering up these atrocities. But there is a clear pattern [of genocide]."

In Gaza, the enforced starvation and denial of humanitarian aid, the piracy of life-giving resources such as fuel and water, the denial of medicines, the systematic destruction of infrastructure and killing and maiming of the civilian population, 50 per cent of whom are children, fall within the international standard of the Genocide Convention. "Is it an irresponsible overstatement," asked Richard Falk, UN special rapporteur for human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories and international law authority at Princeton University, "to associate the treatment of Palestinians with this criminalised Nazi record of collective atrocity? I think not."

In describing a “holocaust-in-the making”, Falk was alluding to the Nazis’ establishment of Jewish ghettos in Poland. For one month in 1943, the captive Polish Jews, led by Mordechaj Anielewicz, fought off the German army and the SS, but their resistance was finally crushed and the Nazis exacted their final revenge. Falk is also a Jew. Today’s holocaust-in-the-making, which began with Ben-Gurion’s Plan D, is in its final stages. The difference today is that it is a joint US-Israeli project. The F-16 jet fighters, the 250lb “smart” GBU-39 bombs supplied on the eve of the attack on Gaza, having been approved by a Congress dominated by the Democratic Party, plus the annual $2.4bn in warmaking “aid”, give Washington de facto control. It beggars belief that President-elect Obama was not informed. Outspoken about Russia’s war in Georgia and the terrorism in Mumbai, Obama has maintained a silence on Palestine that marks his approval, which is to be expected, given his obsequiousness to the Tel Aviv regime and its lobbyists during the presidential campaign and his appointment of Zionists as his secretary of state and principal Middle East advisers. When Aretha Franklin sings “Think”, her wonderful 1960s anthem to freedom, at Obama’s inauguration on 20 January, I trust someone with the brave heart of Muntader al-Zaidi, the shoe-thrower, will shout: “Gaza!”

The asymmetry of conquest and terror is clear. Plan D is now "Operation Cast Lead", which is the unfinished "Operation Justified Vengeance". This was launched by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2001 when, with George W Bush's approval, he used F-16s against Palestinian towns and villages for the first time.


Why are the academics and teachers silent? Are British universities now no more than “intellectual Tescos”?


In that same year, the authoritative Jane's Foreign Report disclosed that the Blair government had given Israel the "green light" to attack the West Bank after it was shown Israel's secret designs for a bloodbath. It was typical of new Labour's enduring complicity in Palestine's agony. However, the Israeli plan, reported Jane's, needed the "trigger" of a suicide bombing which would cause "numerous deaths and injuries [because] the 'revenge' factor is crucial". This would "motivate Israeli soldiers to demolish the Palestinians". What alarmed Sharon and the author of the plan, General Shaul Mofaz, then Israeli chief of staff, was a secret agreement between Yasser Arafat and Hamas to ban suicide attacks. On 23 November 2001 Israeli agents assassinated the Hamas leader Mahmoud Abu Hanoud and got their "trigger": the suicide attacks resumed in response to his killing.

Something uncannily similar happened on 4 November last year when Israeli special forces attacked Gaza, killing six people. Once again, they got their propaganda "trigger": a ceasefire sustained by the Hamas government - which had imprisoned its violators - was shattered as a result of the Israeli attacks, and home-made rockets were fired into what used to be called Palestine before its Arab occupants were "cleansed". On 23 December, Hamas offered to renew the ceasefire, but Israel's charade was such that its all-out assault on Gaza had been planned six months earlier, according to the Israeli daily Haaretz.

Behind this sordid game is the "Dagan Plan", named after General Meir Dagan, who served with Sharon during his bloody invasion of Leba non in 1982. Now head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence organisation, Dagan is the author of a "solution" that has brought about the imprisonment of Palestinians behind a ghetto wall snaking across the West Bank and in Gaza, now effectively a concentration camp. The establishment of a quisling government in Ramallah, under Mahmoud Abbas, is Dagan's achievement, together with a hasbara (propaganda) campaign, relayed through mostly supine, if intimidated western media, notably in the US, which say Hamas is a terrorist organisation devoted to Israel's destruction and is to "blame" for the massacres and siege of its own people over two generations, since long before its creation. "We have never had it so good," said the Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Gideon Meir in 2006. "The hasbara effort is a well-oiled machine."

In fact, Hamas's real threat is its example as the Arab world's only democratically elected government, drawing its popularity from its resistance to the Palestinians' oppressor and tormentor. This was demonstrated when Hamas foiled a CIA coup in 2007, an event ordained in the western media as "Hamas's seizure of power". Likewise, Hamas is never described as a government, let alone democratic. Neither is its proposal of a ten-year truce reported as a historic recognition of the "reality" of Israel and support for a two-state solution with just one condition: that the Israelis obey international law and end their illegal occupation beyond the 1967 borders. As every annual vote in the UN General Assembly demonstrates, most states agree. On 4 January, the president of the General Assembly, Miguel d'Escoto, described the Israeli attack on Gaza as a "monstrosity".

When the monstrosity is done and the people of Gaza are even more stricken, the Dagan Plan foresees what Sharon called a "1948-style solution" - the destruction of all Palestinian leadership and authority, followed by mass expulsions into smaller and smaller "cantonments", and perhaps, finally, into Jordan. This demolition of institutional and educational life in Gaza is designed to produce, wrote Karma Nabulsi, a Palestinian exile in Britain, "a Hobbesian vision of an anarchic society: truncated, violent, powerless, destroyed, cowed . . . Look to the Iraq of today: that is what [Sharon] had in store for us, and he has nearly achieved it."

Dr Dahlia Wasfi is an American writer on Iraq and Palestine. She has a Jewish mother and an Iraqi Muslim father. "Holocaust denial is anti-Semitic," she wrote on 31 December. "But I'm not talking about the World War II, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad [the president of Iran] or Ashkenazi Jews. What I'm referring to is the holocaust we are all witnessing and responsible for in Gaza today and in Palestine over the past 60 years . . . Since Arabs are Semites, US-Israeli policy doesn't get more anti-Semitic than this." She quoted Rachel Corrie, the young American who went to Palestine to defend Palestinians and was crushed by an Israeli bulldozer. "I am in the midst of a genocide," wrote Corrie, "which I am also indirectly supporting, and for which my government is largely responsible."

Reading the words of both, I am struck by the use of "responsibility". Breaking the lie of silence is not an esoteric abstraction, but an urgent responsibility that falls to those with the privilege of a platform. With the BBC cowed, so too is much of journalism, merely allowing vigorous debate within unmovable, invisible boundaries, ever fearful of the smear of anti-Semitism. The unreported news, meanwhile, is that the death toll in Gaza is the equivalent of 18,000 dead in Britain. Imagine, if you can.

Then there are the academics, the deans and teachers and researchers. Why are they silent as they watch a university bombed and hear the Association of University Teachers in Gaza plead for help? Are British universities now, as Terry Eagleton believes, no more than “intellectual Tescos, churning out a commodity known as graduates rather than greengroceries”?

Then there are the writers. In the dark year of 1939, the Third American Writers' Congress was held at Carnegie Hall in New York and the likes of Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein sent messages and spoke up to ensure that the lie of silence was broken. By one account, 2,500 jammed the auditorium. Today, this mighty voice of realism and morality is said to be obsolete; the literary review pages affect an ironic hauteur of irrelevance; false symbolism is all. As for the readers, their moral and political imagination is to be pacified, not primed. The anti-Muslim Martin Amis expressed this well in Visiting Mrs Nabo kov: "The dominance of the self is not a flaw, it is an evolutionary characteristic; it is just how things are."

If that is how things are, we are diminished as a civilised people. For what happens in Gaza is the defining moment of our time, which either grants war criminals impunity and immunity through our silence, while we contort our own intellect and morality, or it gives us the power to speak out. For the moment I prefer my own memory of Gaza: of the people's courage and resistance and their "luminous humanity", as Karma Nabulsi put it. On my last trip there, I was rewarded with a spectacle of Palestinian flags fluttering in unlikely places. It was dusk and children had done this. No one had told them to do it. They made flagpoles out of sticks tied together, and a few of them climbed on to a wall and held the flag between them, some silently, others crying out. They do this every day when they know foreigners are leaving, in the belief that the world will not forget them.

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The destruction of Gaza

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She’s leaving home: the women who left North Korea

There is something unsettling about the western media’s fascination with North Korea, as these two books reveal.

Yeonmi Park and Hyeonseo Lee were born more than a decade apart and spent much of their early childhood in Hyesan, a North Korean city on the banks of the Yalu River, which separates the “hermit state” from China. Both women are strong-willed and resourceful and share a flair for fashion ­inherited from their mothers, who worked as smugglers and rebelled against North Korea’s strict dress codes whenever they could by buying knock-off Chanel handbags or perming their hair. Yet while Lee was born to parents with high songbun (“status”), Park’s parents fell close to the bottom of North Korea’s rigid caste system. Lee remembers “idyllic summers” picnicking in fields and watching children catch dragonflies; Park was so hungry that she caught them to eat.

A few weeks before Lee turned 18, she walked across the frozen Yalu in her fashionable new red shoes, hoping for a short adventure in China. She has never been able to return. Park was just 13 when she fled Hyesan, starving and desperate, with her mother. They are among the 25,000 or so North Koreans to have escaped successfully from one of the most repressive regimes in modern history and two of only a small number of female defectors to tell their ­stories. Lee’s The Girl with Seven Names and Park’s In Order to Live describe their difficult and very different journeys to freedom and offer an unusual insight into the secretive country that they left behind.

There is something unsettling about the western media’s fascination with North Korea. The government-sanctioned haircuts, the camp gymnastics displays and the state media’s ridiculous rhetoric linger in the public consciousness much longer than reports of executions and gulags. Both books contain titillating details of the country’s weirdness. Park recalls a campaign for patriots to donate their poo during a fertiliser shortage. At her school, a typical maths question went like this: “If you kill one American bastard and your comrade kills two, how many dead American bastards do you have?” Any child who referred to US citizens without using one of the official descriptions – “American bastard”, “Yankee devil” or “big-nosed Yankee” – was punished for being soft on the enemy.

The most revealing passages describe the rare moments when the alternate universes of North Korea and the rest of the world collide. Park describes watching a bootlegged copy of Titanic and marvelling that “Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were willing to die for love, not just for the regime, as we were”. The film gave Park her “first small taste of freedom”. That North Koreans would risk imprisonment or death for pirated video games and Hollywood blockbusters shows how strong the desire for entertainment and novelty can be. Yet Park’s memoir also illustrates the strength of propaganda – how else could you “believe that North Korea is a socialist paradise . . . while devouring movies and TV programmes that show ordinary people in enemy nations enjoying a level of prosperity that you couldn’t imagine in your dreams”?

In some ways, Park and Lee were like teenage girls anywhere – falling in love, mooning over romantic pop, discovering pornography, rebelling against their parents – except that their thoughts, movements and even ambitions were regulated by the regime and the threat of violence was ever present. It was “normal, like air pollution”, Lee writes. Her descriptions are brutally matter-of-fact. She attends the execution of a well-liked smuggler; she writes: “When the shot hit the popular guy’s head, it exploded, leaving a fine pink mist.” In North Korea, she explains, most people try to avoid watching executions unless they know the person, in which case it is customary to attend, as they would a funeral.

To the regime, individuals’ lives might be considered worthless; for human traffickers, however, they have a price. After she crossed the river to China, Park was sold for $260, and her mother for $65. The traffickers wanted to rape Park but her mother offered herself up instead. Later, although still only 13, Park was forced to become the mistress of a trafficker and helped him collect, clean up and sell the women in his charge. There was no opportunity to complain of mistreatment to the authorities, because in China North Korean defectors are routinely arrested and sent back home to almost certain death in a prison camp. Her story sheds light on the dark mechanics of the trafficking industry and the chilling consequences of China’s forced repatriation programmes.

Lee’s journey seems to have been driven less by desperation and more by her irrepressible desire for a better life. What kind of teenager would cross one of the world’s most dangerous borders in her cool new shoes, hoping for a holiday? A naive one, certainly – yet her determination and independence are also remarkable. In China, she chooses to go on the run rather than accept the safety of marriage to her boyfriend, a wealthy if dull Chinese-Korean gamer. By the time Lee makes it to South Korea, she has so effectively adapted to Chinese society – she has acquired Chinese ID, speaks Mandarin fluently and is earning a good wage as a translator – that it takes her a long time to convince officials that she is a North Korean defector. As soon as she is safely in South Korea, she risks everything to help her mother and brother escape.

In publishing their memoirs, Lee and Park are taking yet another big risk. Last year, the UN noted how difficult it was to keep witnesses safe. Many North Korean defectors feared speaking to it, even confidentially, for fear of reprisals. Both Park and Lee are hoping that by going public they can expose human rights abuses in their country and increase the pressure on China to change its policy on its neighbour. Yet their stories also tell of the vulnerability and resilience of refugees all over the world. What despair and courage it takes to wade through the freezing water of the Yalu River, or march unguided across the icy border between China and Mongolia in the dead of night, or clamber into a crowded Jeep traversing the Sahara, or cram your children on to an overloaded boat on the Mediterranean, in the faint hope that anything must be better than what you have left behind.

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector's Tale by Hyeonseo Lee with David John is published by William Collins (304pp, £16.99). In Order To Live: A North Korean Girl's Journey to Freedom by Yeonmi Park with Maryanne Vollers is published by Fig Tree (288pp, £18.99).

Sophie McBain is an NS contributing writer

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide

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The men saving Syria’s treasures from Isis

A remarkable group of archaeologists are battling to save the country’s ancient artifacts.

On 19 May this year, the ancient city of Palmyra was about to fall. Jihadist fighters were advancing in pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine-guns. They were from the group that calls itself Islamic State, also known as Da’esh and Isis.

Khalil Hariri, an archaeology expert who worked at the Syrian city’s museum, could hear the sounds of the fighting getting closer. Grunting and sweating, he and four friends kept on manhandling wooden crates out of the door of the museum and down to three trucks that were parked outside.

Bullets hit the outside of the museum, sounding like enraged insects as they hissed over their heads. Mortars exploded nearby, sending hot pieces of shrapnel fizzing through the air, blowing shards of wood off the trees and turning them into daggers. The men bundled the last crate into the nearest truck. As they jumped in after it, with the vehicles careering out of Museum Square, a bullet hit Khalil. Shrapnel wounded two of the others.

They drove fast down the road to Homs, away from Da’esh, as they call Isis, not even stopping to treat the wounded until they were well clear of Palmyra.

Against all odds and under heavy fire, five middle-aged men had managed to thwart the new barbarians of Islamic State. In scenes reminiscent of the George Clooney film The Monuments Men, about an army unit that tries to save art treasures hidden by the Nazis, Hariri and his friends had rescued Palmyra Museum’s priceless collection of artefacts, the legacy of one of the world’s earliest civilisations. Ten minutes after the men left, Isis fighters entered the museum. The display cases were empty. Nothing was left inside, except big statues that were too heavy to lift without a crane.

Who were the men who saved the treasures of Palmyra? The first, Khalil Hariri, was the museum’s director. When he left in May, his wife stayed behind in the city with his young son. So rapid was the Isis advance that he had to leave them behind and it took nearly a month to get them to safety. When they were reunited, she told him that the jihadists stormed out of the museum and into their house 30 metres away, looking for him and demanding to know what he had done with the collection.

When I met him this month in Damascus, Khalil inhaled his cigarette smoke to the base of his lungs. “I’m going to get a harsh sentence, if they get hold of me,” he said. He knows this because after the jihadists escaped with the few remaining contents of the museum, Isis men took away his brother and two cousins and killed them. It was, he says, a reprisal.

He was helped in his daring plan by his brothers-in-law Mohammed, Walid and Tarik al-Asaad. Their father was Khaled al-Asaad, the 83-year-old keeper of Palmyra’s antiquities, who was publicly murdered by the jihadists last month.

Khaled al-Asaad was born in the city and served as head of the museum and director of antiquities for 40 years, until 2003. Even in retirement, he was still the man whose opinion and judgement about Palmyra and its treasures mattered most. He so admired Zenobia, the 3rd-century warrior queen of Palmyra who rebelled against the Roman empire, that he named his daughter after her. She married Khalil Hariri.

Mohammed al-Asaad was not scared when the bullets began flying as they were struggling with crates of antiquities. “We believed that what we were doing was important,” he told me. The whole family had been brought up by their father to venerate Palmyra, its buildings and its treasures.

In Iraq over the past year, Islamic State has destroyed ancient sites and reduced statues in museums to rubble. Mohammed’s father knew what might be coming when they reached Palmyra.

So, in May, Khaled al-Asaad refused to leave with his sons. They never saw him again. He was beheaded by Isis fighters in a public square; his body was left hanging on a traffic light.

“My father was 83 years old,” Mohammed told me, “and a true believer in the importance of Palmyra. He was deeply attached to it and refused to flee. He believed that it should be protected against any harm from militants or anyone else.”

I sat with Khalil and Mohammed in the garden of the Damascus museum and talked about how and why Isis had killed Khaled. Mohammed had a picture of his father in better times, downloaded from the internet, on his phone. All the family’s physical mementoes were left behind in Palmyra.

Mohammed was Khaled’s right-hand man at the museum for 25 years; he is proud of his father’s bravery, the way he brought them up, and the love he instilled in them all for Palmyra. “The main reason Da’esh executed my father was he refused to swear allegiance to them. They labelled him an apostate – a non-believer. There were stories that they killed him because he knew the secrets of Palmyra and locations of a hidden store of gold. But that’s false . . . they killed him because he was honest and loved Palmyra and was devoted to it and refused to leave it till his last breath.”

Mohammed added: “We were punished by getting chased out of Palmyra. All our possessions were confiscated. All that’s left for us in Palmyra are the ruins.”



The nihilists of Isis revile all the relics of religious life in the Middle East before the Prophet Muhammad, which they regard as a time of heresy. Palmyra was always a prime target for them because it has Syria’s greatest single concentration of buildings and artefacts from that era. The Prophet died in 632AD; by then Palmyra was already an ancient city, with a remarkable body of architecture. It has survived earthquakes and wars, but is now in greater danger than ever.

It was not an accident that Syria’s monuments men were able to empty Palmyra’s museum. It was part of a plan hatched by Syria’s director of antiquities, an engaging, francophone, energetic man in his early fifties called Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim. He had watched with alarm what was happening in Iraq, and realised as Isis advanced that it was a matter of time before it tried to take its drills and sledgehammers to some of Syria’s heritage, too. Until March the plan had been to bring some objects to Damascus and to hide others locally. But after the fall of a strategic provincial capital, Idlib, to Islamist extremists in March, he gave orders to crate up as much as possible and bring it to “safe places” (he won’t say where they are) in and around Damascus.

When wars are going on, while the killing seems endless, and the fear and the desire to run away and not to stop is overwhelming, it can be hard to think about a time when it will all be over. Looking back and thinking about all the wars that went before – in Syria’s case, over roughly 5,000 years or more of history – and knowing
that all wars end eventually is no comfort for the refugees struggling to escape the battle zone, or to get to Europe. But now history is on the front line of the war in Syria. Perhaps history shouldn’t matter any more. I asked Professor Abdulkarim whether it was right to be concerned about ancient relics when so many human beings were being slaughtered.

“I think it’s two different things; we cannot compare them,” he said. “I understand lives are very important because we are people, too, we are living in this crisis, we know we can be killed in this crisis, too. We understand this question. But our job as archaeologists is saving this heritage. And finally
what we are doing to save cultural heritage in Syria. It’s the memory of the Syrian people, it’s the identity of these people. I’m sure the crisis will finish. Life will be better in the future. But all the damage to the cultural heritage will stay for all the generations. That’s why we are thinking about how we can reduce the damage, how we can save all the collections in all the museums in Syria.”

The National Museum of Damascus is opposite the hotel where the UN is based. Journalists stay there as well. Since the war started, I’ve looked down on the museum many times from a balcony, as the thunder of artillery has broken over the city, and flashes and explosions have come from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and all the other urban battlefields. All that time, the museum has been there, battened down, closed for the duration of the war.

Abdulkarim ordered that the most precious tombs and sculptures in the garden should be encased in concrete to protect them. On my visit this month, we walked past the strange concrete cubes to see how he has improved security. We waited while a four-tonne steel door at the main entrance rumbled slowly upwards. The old steel grille lay on the floor, dusty and fragile-looking. Armoured glass has been put into the windows. The display cases here have been emptied, too, and their contents put into safe storage.

In the basement is a stunningly preserved tomb from Palmyra which was moved to the museum in the 1930s. It shows the man who commissioned it at a feast, surrounded by his family and possessions. He reclines like a Roman, propping himself up on his elbow as he eats, but the carving is in the distinct style of Palmyra. The generations that followed his body into the tomb for two centuries are immortalised in lines of sculpted heads.



Isis smashes up statues and ancient sites on video to scare its enemies and excite its supporters. But the archaeologists say it also makes a lot of money selling off attractive, portable pieces to dealers. To pre-empt them, Abdulkarim’s team has rescued 16,000 cuneiform tablets and 15,000 coins, ceramics and other objects from Deir az-Zour, a city where Isis has been fighting the Syrian army and local tribes. The tablets are relics of a writing system developed by the Sumerians in Mesopotamia around 3,500BC. Their makers used reeds to mark clay tablets, creating one of the earliest records of politics, war and trade. Many of the objects are small, easy to hide and to smuggle, and worth a lot of money to collectors.

Syria has monuments women, too. A 25-year-old archaeologist, who does not wish to named, so that she can carry on with her work, led the team that rescued 24,000 ancient objects from Aleppo. The road from the regime-held side of Aleppo to Damascus is dangerous, and in places lonely and almost empty. The Syrian army secured it only last year, and its hold on parts of the road is tenuous. The convoys moved quickly and discreetly in unmarked vehicles because of the risk that they might be robbed. They were high-value targets.

Another young female archaeologist, Mayassa Deeb, is in charge of classifying and repacking all the objects that have been saved so they can be put safely into storage. Each one is photographed, its details uploaded on to a database, then it is wrapped in layers of cotton wool and tissue paper. They are packed into sandwich boxes – the staff have had to improvise – and slotted into packing cases lined with protective foam.

Mayassa is an expert on chariots. She showed me her favourite object: a 5,000-year-old clay model of a chariot that was rescued from Deir az-Zour. If Isis had found it, she said, they would have either smashed it or sold it.

The archaeologists work in an open courtyard in the museum, and sometimes they can hear shells, mostly fired out from Syrian army positions, sometimes coming back in from the rebel-held suburbs. May­assa loves coming to work, because it helps her forget what is happening outside. “It’s hard because every minute we have a noise and we have an explosion, and some die, it’s hard . . . but we work, and sometimes we don’t remember we have a war. We feel safe here, we don’t think about the war. Some people lose their houses, somebody loses his family, somebody goes abroad. Everybody has problems.”

She looked at the clay chariot, about the size of a couple of matchboxes, decorated with tiny marks that were made five millennia ago. “It’s important for everybody because this isn’t just about the history of Syria – this chariot speaks to us about the history of all the human world. For this reason we must keep it.”

I expected the museum to be full of despair because of the attacks on Palmyra by Isis and the desolation elsewhere in the country. Some of the worst destruction is in Aleppo’s Old City. It was a gem, a tight mass of alleys and khans, as full of entrepreneurs as it must have been a thousand and more years ago. Now it is in ruins.

But Professor Abdulkarim and his team are remarkably positive, horrified by the destruction of the most significant relic in Palmyra, the Baalshamin temple, but delighted about what has been rescued. They are even hopeful, if the stones are not too badly damaged, that they can put the buildings back together after the war. Now they want help from abroad. Foreign governments, the professor said, need to crack down much harder to stop the illegal trade in stolen antiquities.

He also talked about rebuilding the great minaret of the Umayyad Mosque in the Old City of Aleppo, which was flattened earlier in the war. “We’ve told them not to touch the stones,” he told me enthusiastically. “If they’re all there, we can fix it.”

Abdulkarim has 2,500 people working to save Syria’s past, on both sides of the lines. Fourteen of them have been killed so far. “We saved 99 per cent of the collection in the [country’s] museums. It’s good. It’s not just for the good of the government. It’s for the opposition, for the humanity, for all Syria. It is our common identity, our common heritage.”

The National Museum and the remarkable people who work there have created an unexpected oasis, transcending politics and trying to save a vital part of their country for better times. In a country full of despair, it was the most hopeful place I have been in Syria since the war began.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor and the author of “The Arab Uprisings” (Simon & Schuster)

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War