June 23, 2024
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By Daniel Estrin

Gaza City officials, as well as eyewitnesses, claim that the Omari Mosque – Gaza’s oldest and most famous mosque – has been destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.

Unidentified Israeli officials who provided a preliminary assessment to NPR confirmed that the mosque was struck. They said there were militant tunnels on the grounds of the mosque, and Hamas Nukhba fighters regularly used it as a cover.

The mosque has a long and storied past, having been destroyed by earthquakes and conquered many times. It also incorporates many different religious traditions. NPR visited this mosque as part of a cultural tour in Gaza with a guide.

Gaza’s main mosque is now unrecognizable, its stained-glass windows and blue carpeted floors gone.

A local Gaza newspaper and Gaza City’s municipality published images on Friday showing the roof of the mosque demolished, the rubble-covered main hall, some arched wall and still intact minaret.

Israel claims its goal is to eradicate Hamas from Gaza, so that it won’t be able to carry out another assault like the one on Oct. 7, which killed around 1,200 in southern Israel. Gaza officials claim that the military bombardment has resulted in more than 17,000 deaths and left much of Gaza’s historic center a wasteland.

It was originally built as a Byzantine Church in the 5th Century, over an older temple. The mosque was built in the 7th Century, followed by a crusader chapel in the 11th, then back to being a Mosque in the 13th.

In the mosque of today, the architectural features of the crusader church are still visible. An etching on a column of a Jewish Menorah, which was believed to be originally part of a synagogue in antiquity, used to exist, but was recently destroyed.

Israeli soldiers called for residents to flee the violence in the vicinity of the mosque on both Friday and Saturday, but most stayed.

Mustafa Shahawani (22), a resident of the area, went out to inspect the damages to his neighborhood during a break in the fighting between Israeli soldiers and Hamas militants. The traditional gold market for trading gold was destroyed. He was also shocked to see the nearby mosque.

He told NPR over a very patchy phone line that “the mosque has become a hole.” This is where our holiday and Ramadan prayers were held. “All our memories were there.”

The fighting was resuming and so he hurried back to his home.

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