'Removal of Gaza mosaic may constitute war crime'

New book sheds light on WWI uncovering of Byzantine artwork, says Australian troops guilty under int'l law, according to Sydney paper.

August 14, 2011 18:11
1 minute read.
Byzantine mosaic (illustrative)

Byzantine mosaic 311. (photo credit: REUTERS)

A new book sheds light on the 1917 discovery of a Byzantine Shellal mosaic by Australian soldiers from among the ruins of a church near Gaza, and its relocation to Australia, according to a report in The Sydney Morning Herald on Sunday.

The incident is significant because of the possibility that its removal from Palestinian territory might be considered a crime under international law, which "prohibits pillage, and the seizure of the property of institutions dedicated to the arts and sciences" and considers them war crimes. 

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According to a statement from the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade cited by the The Sydney Morning Herald, it is impossible to determine whether or not the mosaic's removal constitutes a war crime as not enough is known about its recovery.

Authors Paul Daley and Michael Bowers, however, believe that the troops who uncovered the piece were aware of its value. Daley explains in their book Armageddon: Two Men on an Anzac Trail that, ''From time to time, Australian authorities have privately expressed their unease at the fact that the mosaic was effectively looted from Palestine and removed to Australia." 

The mosaic was originally discovered by Turkish soldiers who damaged it while digging a machine gun position. It was recovered in the second battle of Gaza by Australian and New Zealand Army Corps and bought to Australia. It has been part of the Australian War Memorial collection since 1941.

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