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Israeli strike leaves Gaza's oldest mosque in ruins

Left: A Palestinian schoolgirl in Gaza City passes by the main entrance to Pasha's Palace in 2019 as the minaret of the Omari Mosque is seen in the background. Right: Palestinians spend a Ramadan fasting day in 2019 reading the Quran inside the Omari Mosque.
Khalil Hamra
AP Images for NPR
Left: A Palestinian schoolgirl in Gaza City passes by the main entrance to Pasha's Palace in 2019 as the minaret of the Omari Mosque is seen in the background. Right: Palestinians spend a Ramadan fasting day in 2019 reading the Quran inside the Omari Mosque.

TEL AVIV, Israel — The Omari Mosque, Gaza's most iconic landmark and oldest mosque stretching back centuries, has been largely destroyed in an Israeli strike, Gaza City officials and eyewitnesses say.

An Israeli official, who spoke to NPR on condition of anonymity to offer a preliminary assessment, confirmed the strike and said the mosque grounds contained a tunnel shaft used by militants, and that Hamas fighters from the elite Nukhba battalion had regularly used the mosque for cover.

Destroyed by earthquakes and conquests, and rebuilt many times over history, the mosque had a storied history incorporating many religious traditions. NPR visited the mosque in 2019 on a tour of Gaza's cultural landmarks with a local guide.

Now Gaza's central mosque, with its blue-carpeted floors and stained glass windows, is unrecognizable.

Images published Friday by a local Gaza news site and the Gaza City municipality show the mosque's roof demolished and the main hall covered in rubble, with some arched walls and a damaged, but still intact, minaret.

Israel says its aim is to eliminate Hamas in Gaza so it doesn't carry out another attack like its Oct. 7 assault that killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel. The military's resulting bombardment of Gaza has killed more than 17,000 people, Gaza health officials say, and rendered much of Gaza's historic core a wasteland.

Mixed religious traditions

The Omari Mosque was originally a 5th century Byzantine church that was built over a more ancient temple. It was converted into a mosque in the 7th century, then a Crusader church in the 11th century, and back to a mosque in the 13th century.

The architectural elements of the Crusader church were still apparent in the modern-day mosque, and an etching of a Jewish menorah on a mosque column, believed to have been originally part of an ancient synagogue, was once documented, and was destroyed in recent decades.

The Israeli military on Friday and Saturday called on residents of the neighborhood near the mosque to leave the area to escape the fighting, but many have stayed.

During a lull in combat between Israeli troops and Hamas fighters on Friday, Mustafa Shahawani, 22, ventured out with a group of residents who live near the mosque to survey the damage to the neighborhood. He found the traditional gold market, for buying and selling gold, destroyed, and was shocked when he came upon the mosque next door.

"The mosque is now a hole," he told NPR on a patchy cellphone line. "This is where we held holiday prayers, Ramadan prayers. All our memories were there."

He stayed for just a moment and rushed back home, as active fighting resumed.

Surviving on rice and water

Most residents of Gaza City fled weeks ago as Israeli troops invaded, but tens of thousands are estimated to have remained there and in the rest of north Gaza, including Shahawani. He doesn't think there's anywhere safer in Gaza to go.

An unemployed university graduate who studied accounting, he is sheltering in his home with his grandmother, who is in her 80s.

"She cries every day," he said.

During a weeklong cease-fire, he was able to walk through parts of Gaza City. He described seeing vast destruction; nearly every home was hit. He saw many bodies in the streets. He cannot stop thinking about the bodies of a woman and child he saw on his walk.

He walked along the beachfront, and discovered the now-destroyed Deira Hotel, a Gaza landmark where he used to spend evenings with friends. The nearby Roots Hotel, a hangout for locals and foreign visitors, was also hit, he said.

Since the cease-fire collapsed on Dec. 1, fighting near his house has intensified and he has barely left home. He and his grandmother drink one cup of water and eat one meal of rice a day. He is craving cheese. It's been a month and a half since he took a shower.

"There is no hope in life. We saw horrible things, and just want to live in peace," Shahawani said. "It's not necessary for kids and women to die."

Residents had been burying their dead in the yard next to his house. They ran out of space a few days ago, he said.

Anas Baba contributed from Rafah, Gaza.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Daniel Estrin
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.