Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Religion

MIDEAST: Mosques Carry the Scars of War

Eva Bartlett

GAZA CITY, Jul 7 2011 (IPS) - “The mosque was just 100 metres from our house. We prayed there every day, five times a day. But it was more than a house of prayer,” says Mohammed, a Beit Hanoun resident, of one of the 34 mosques completely destroyed during the 23-day Israeli war on Gaza in 2008-2009.

A destroyed mosque in Gaza. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

A destroyed mosque in Gaza. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

The Israeli bombing on Jan. 4, 2009, which flattened the Omar Ibn Abdul Aziz mosque on the main north-south street in Beit Hanoun, also damaged the numerous surrounding homes and the local sports club.

“The blast sent rubble to our house,” Mohammed recalls. “Now we have go to one 15 minutes away, one we don’t know intimately.”

According to Dr Hassan Saifi, assistant to the Minister of Religious Affairs in Gaza, a quarter of the Strip’s 800 mosques were damaged or destroyed in the Israeli war on Gaza.

“Two hundred damaged mosques is a shocking amount,” Saifi says. “Among those, 34 throughout the Gaza Strip were completely destroyed.

“Especially in Gaza’s north, which was hit the hardest, completely destroying 15 mosques, the bombing of mosques inflicted many civilian casualties,” says Saifi, noting that Gaza’s north has a higher proportion of Palestinian refugees living in densely-inhabited camps.

“Mosque walls are frequently also the walls of the many homes packed around it. So when mosques are bombed, many homes are bombed at the same time.”

With many mosques decimated and over 150 more badly damaged by Israeli bombings, many in Gaza believe the destruction was intentional.

“The Israelis used state-of-the-art warplanes and unmanned drones with precision visual equipment. They destroyed many of our mosques during the very first days of their attacks,” notes Dr Saifi. “They obviously intended to destroy our mosques, irrespective of those living next door or praying within.”

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) lists a number of the mosques struck, noting that indeed many of the Israeli attacks on mosques came within the first week of Israel’s war on Gaza.

On Dec. 28, Israeli warplanes bombed Jabaliya’s Imad Aqel mosque, killing five young girls, ages 4 to 17, sleeping in their home next to the mosque. Another 17 civilians were injured in the bombing, and many of the cheaply built cement-walled, asbestos-roofed homes surrounding the mosque were destroyed or badly damaged.

The Ibrahim Maqadma mosque in Jabaliya was hit by a drone-fired missile on Jan. 3 2009, reports PCHR, injuring more than 30 and killing 15 civilians, among them four children and those praying at the time of the attack.

The targeting of mosques, along with other civilian areas, is in contravention to international law and the Geneva Conventions.

“The Zionist occupation state doesn’t respect churches and mosques, nor any international law. They bombed the UN food storage warehouse, UN schools, and attacked the Red Cross even though these are international organisations,” says Dr. Saifi.

Israel’s killing of Palestinian civilians during the war on Gaza stretched beyond mosques, including targeting kindergartens, schools, hospitals, ambulances, cars and homes, and universities. The widespread destruction wreaked on Gaza impacted on all aspects of life, cultural, academic, industry, personal, and religious.

The bombings also assaulted Gaza’s historical buildings and places, among them the Nasser mosque in Beit Hanoun. Built in 736 AD, the mosque was hit by Israeli bombing on Jan. 2, 2009, completely destroying it.

“It was a historic building and should have been preserved,” Hassan Saifi says. “Like any historical site in the world, our relics also must be protected as heritage sites, for all of the world not just for Palestine.”

The Ministry of Religious Affairs states Gaza’s mosque rebuilding efforts will run over 13.5 million dollars. Under the Israeli-led siege which bans imports of construction materials and which for the past five years has caused many international donors to freeze their funding, little rebuilding has actually taken place.

“Some people and organisations have donated money and materials, via the tunnels from Egypt. After two and a half years we have begun building just ten of the mosques destroyed throughout the Gaza Strip,” says the assistant Minister of Religious Affairs.

“As poor as most Palestinians in Gaza are, people give what they can, however little, because mosques are important to their daily lives.”

Since January 2009, Palestinians in Gaza accustomed to praying in their local mosques have resorted to praying in mosques further away or in makeshift mosques of wire fencing and plastic sheeting.

As religious centres worldwide serve as meeting places for family and friends, mosques also serve roles beyond venues of prayer.

“Anyone traveling or away from their home can enter the mosque to drink water, use the bathroom, rest and pray,” says Dr. Saifi.

In Beit Hanoun, Mohammed recalls the mosque dear to his family. “My grandfather built it decades ago and neighbours contributed what they could. Some gave money, some gave materials like stones, doors, or whatever they could offer. It was a part of us and our community.”

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