Parallels
3:40 pm
Tue August 12, 2014

Gaza's Casualties Of War Include Its Historic Mosques

Originally published on Wed August 13, 2014 9:44 am

Because of the debris, you can't go through the door anymore to get into the Omari mosque. You have to climb over a pile of rubble and through a hole in the wall, followed by a surging crowd of kids.

The ceiling of the low building in the Jabaliya area, near Gaza City, is made of vaulted stone arches – except where the sunlight comes streaming through a hole torn in the roof and lands on a pile of ripped-up pages of Arabic calligraphy. It's what remains of the mosque's Qurans. Most were destroyed; some burned. It took Gazans three days to dig out the remains.

Mohammad Alloush, a 22-year-old student, and Jowdet al-Najjar, 70, show me around.

They say a mosque has stood on the site for 13 centuries. Historians reckon the oldest part of the current structure is the minaret, which is estimated to be around 700 years old. It survived the Israeli attack. But a vast, new, modern wing did not. It was flattened.

"For the people, it was a blessing and it was important to have such a mosque," Alloush says.

After a month of fighting between Israel and the Palestinians, many residents in Gaza are coping with the damage or, in some cases, destruction of a mosque that was a pillar in their lives.

Israeli airstrikes have destroyed 43 mosques and damaged 132 more, according to Hamas.

Israel says Hamas store rockets in and launches attacks from the mosques. The men at Omari deny it and say that they have now lost the center of their community.

Two weeks ago, as conflict between Hamas and Israel raged, a person who lived next to the Omari mosque got a phone call before dawn. It was from the Israeli military, which said it would strike the Omari mosque, and no one should go to the first prayers of the morning. Frantically, he spread the word. Everyone got the message – except the volunteer who was making the call to prayer, Daoud al-Sleiman.

"He came into the mosque to do the call. He said only 'Allahu Akbar' (God is greatest) and then he was blown to pieces," Alloush says.

"We used to feel safety in and around this mosque," Alloush adds. "After they hit the mosque here, we lack the feeling of safety to us and everybody in the neighborhood."

Some also say that Hamas didn't actually care much for traditions surrounding this mosque. Najjar, the old man, says the group's conservative brand of Islam frowned on gatherings each year at a shrine next door, where people lit candles and feasted to mark the Prophet Muhammad's birthday.

He takes me to see the shrine, where a long line of sheikhs that trace their history with this mosque back 500 years have been entombed.

The shrine has a green dome, a green covered sarcophagus in the middle of the room of the first sheikh at this mosque, and a sign up on the wall with the names — beautifully inscribed — of all the sheikhs who followed after him. And the shrine is covered in debris. The wall is blown in, the floor covered in bits of blocks.

These days, Abdelkarim Hammouda usually does the call to prayer, but at 60, he's getting a bit old to do the early mornings. That's the only reason he wasn't killed in the attack.

"People started crying at the very beginning of the attack, and they're still crying inside their houses," he says. "This place did nothing wrong to any party."

Hammouda says he personally warned Hamas' military men to stay away from the mosque.

With the mosque destroyed, I ask the men where they are praying now?

The men lead me down an alleyway where the postwar repairs are beginning. Wires are being re-affixed. Walls are being patched up.

Men are doing the traditional washing before prayers in what looks like an agricultural trough.

And then we walk into a shrapnel-pocked warehouse that has been turned into a makeshift mosque, hastily carpeted in green.

The traditional carved stands for holding Qurans, the Muslim holy book, are missing. But someone has knocked some together from plywood. Jerry-rigged fans keep the worshipers cool.

Hammouda steps up to the microphone, and the call to prayer rings out, as it does five times a day, offering moments of continuity amid the tumult in Gaza.

Outside, I meet Hassan al-Mohra, coming to join the prayers.

When the Omari mosque was bombed, long-time worshippers were separated and went to other mosques, he says. He thinks this re-purposed warehouse is good because now "we are back again doing prayers in this mosque together, and we're strong because of God."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A three-day cease-fire is holding for now in Gaza and Israel as peace talks continue in Egypt. In Gaza, along with the massive loss of life, many people are also shaken by the loss of a central part of their community - the mosque. From Gaza, NPR's Alice Fordham reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Because of the mess, you can't get into the Omari mosque through the door anymore, so we climb over a pile of rubble and through a hole in the wall, followed by a surging crowd of kids.

This isn't the well-known Great Mosque of Gaza, which was not badly damaged, but another ancient mosque by the same name. It's a low building, and the ceiling is made of vaulted stone arches, except where the sunlight comes streaming through a hole in the roof and lands on a pile of ripped up pages of Arabic calligraphy.

MOHAMMED ALLOUSH: (Through translator) We went through the Qurans. Most were destroyed. Some were burned. We put the rest here. It took three days.

FORDHAM: That's Mohammed Alloush, who's a 22-year-old student. He shows me around, along with Jawdet al Najjar, who's 70. They say, a mosque has stood here for 13 centuries. Historians reckon the oldest remaining part is the minaret, which is maybe 700 years old and survived the attack. A modern wing did not. It's flattened.

ALLOUSH: (Through translator) It's a blessing, and it's important to have such a mosque.

FORDHAM: Two Saturdays ago, a neighbor got a phone call before dawn. It was the Israelis. They said, they would strike the mosque, and no one should go to the first prayers of the morning. Frantically, he spread the word. Everyone got the message, except the volunteer who was saying the call to prayer, says Alloush.

ALLOUSH: (Through translator) He said only, Allahu Akbar, and then he was blown to pieces.

FORDHAM: Israeli airstrikes have destroyed 43 mosques during this last spasm of fighting and damaged 132 more, according to Hamas. Israel says, Hamas store rockets in and launch attacks from the mosques. The men here deny it. That they say, they've lost the center of their community.

ALLOUSH: (Through translator) We used to feel safe in and around the mosque. After they hit the mosque, we no longer feel safe.

FORDHAM: Actually, they say, Hamas didn't like the old mosque much. Najjar, the old man, says, the group's conservative brand of Islam frowned on gatherings each year to a shrine next door, where people lit candles and feasted to mark the prophet Mohammed's birthday. He takes me to see the shrine, where Sheikhs going back 500 years have been entombed.

So I'm standing in the tomb. There's a green, covered sarcophagus in the middle of the room of the first Sheikh who was at this mosque and a sign up on the wall beautifully inscribed with all the Sheikhs who followed after him. And it's just covered in debris. The wall is blown in.

I meet the descendent, Addelkarim Hammouda. He usually does the call to prayer, but, at 60, is getting a bit old to do the early mornings - the only reason he wasn't killed in the attack.

ADDELKARIM HAMMOUDA: (Through translator) People started crying at the very beginning of the attack, and they're still crying inside their houses. This place did nothing wrong to anyone.

FORDHAM: So I ask, where do you say prayers now? They lead me down an alleyway where the post-war repairs are beginning - re-affixing wires, patching up walls. Men are doing the traditional washing before prayers in what looks like an agricultural trough.

And then we're in a shrapnel-pocked warehouse, except now it's a makeshift mosque, hastily carpeted in green. There aren't the traditional carved stands for holding Qurans, but someone's knocked some together from plywood. There are fans jerry-rigged to keep the worshipers cool. Hammouda steps up to the microphone.

HAMMOUDA: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: I meet Hassan al Mohra, coming to join the prayers.

AL MOHRA: (Foreign language spoken).

FORDHAM: When the Omari mosque was bombed, we were separated and went to other mosques, he says. He thinks this repurposed warehouse is good because now we are back again, doing prayers in this mosque together, and we're strong because of God. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Gaza. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.