Mosques destroyed by Israeli strikes, Gazans pray outdoors

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 23, 2009 

IZBIT ABED RABBO, Gaza Strip — It was just after noon on Friday and time for the weekly communal prayer on a day when many Gazans needed divine guidance, but there was no place to pray.

Where the three-story Salahadin mosque once stood in this northern Gaza village, there's only a mountain of rubble. Residents said that Israeli soldiers demolished the mosque, using dynamite and a bulldozer, two weeks ago during their war on the militant Islamic group Hamas.

So at prayer time in Izbit Abed Rabbo, the first Friday since both Israel and Hamas declared cease-fires, several dozen male worshippers gathered in a sandy clearing near the wreckage of the mosque. Some men laid down mats; others took off their jackets and spread them in the dirt. A few men sat with their knees in the sand and their heads bowed, listening to the sermon.

"My dears, we have to be patient. We have to have some faith in Allah," said the imam, Mohammed Hamad. "Our prophets before us faced many struggles, and they were patient. We will wait for the compensation from God."

Israel says its forces crippled Hamas militants and their infrastructure, but they also did staggering damage to places that mark the everyday lives of Gaza's 1.5 million people. More than 1,300 Gazans, as well as 13 Israelis, died in the conflict.

Salahadin, where Hamad has been the imam for about 15 years, was one of 23 mosques that Palestinian officials say were damaged or destroyed in the offensive, along with 25 schools and hospitals, 1,500 factories and commercial structures and several thousand homes and apartment buildings. On Friday, under threatening skies, many Gazans had no choice but to pray outdoors.

Israel says that Hamas uses civilians as shields, and military officials have released video of weapons stored in mosques.

Residents said that militants didn't use the Salahadin mosque, however, and that Israeli tactics did the gravest harm to civilians.

Much of Izbit Abed Rabbo, a quiet farming enclave north of Gaza City, was leveled when Israeli tanks and infantry forces rolled through about two weeks ago, residents said. Down the street from the mosque, multi-story homes are in ruins, vehicles crushed and stray possessions, such as shoes and clothing, lie half-trampled in the sand.

Hamad said that gathering for the Friday prayer showed that the village would recover.

"Our prophet Mohammed said that all the earth is for Muslims, so we pray even though the Israelis demolished our mosque," Hamad said after the sermon. "We are not praying for the mosque walls; we are praying for Allah."

Many worshippers were returning to the village for the first time since fleeing the Israeli invasion and confronting hard memories.

Said Jalala, a 46-year-old university professor, lost his oldest son in March, when Israeli forces launched a brief incursion that killed nearly 100 Palestinians. This time, Jalala said, Israeli soldiers invaded his home and held him and eight other men hostage for 12 hours, moving them from house to house as warplanes circled overhead, occasionally firing into the surrounding neighborhoods.

One strike left a hole in the side of his three-story, custom-designed home. But he was struck by the devastation of the mosque, where he'd prayed for more than a decade.

"They had a mission this time to destroy mosques, I think," Jalala said. "Even areas they didn't enter, they destroyed mosques."

"They didn't destroy Hamas; they destroyed the people," said Hussein al Hawajari, whose 57-year-old mother was killed on the first day of the war when shrapnel from an Israeli airstrike hit her as she walked to the market.

"The children are Hamas? The tree is Hamas? The mosques are Hamas? The animals are Hamas?"

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McClatchy Newspapers 2008

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