Should Historic Gaza Mosques Be Spared Even if Hotbed of Terror Activity?

Palestinians believe IDF couldn’t care less if it destroys cultural or historic buildings in Gaza; Israelis believe Hamas has turned Gaza’s mosques into legitimate targets.

Ilene Prusher
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The rubble of the Omar Ibn Abdul Aziz mosque in Gaza City, which was destroyed on August 25.Credit: AP
Ilene Prusher

Among the many buildings the IDF hit in airstrikes on Gaza on Monday were two mosques: one which the IDF said was used to store weapons and another it said served as a “meeting point for terror activities” in the northern Gaza Strip. The two mosques join the long and still growing list of Gaza’s religious, historic and cultural institutions that been damaged or destroyed during the war that began seven weeks ago.

Before Monday’s air strike, at least 63 mosques were totally destroyed in IDF attacks – those which were only damaged brings the count to over 200 – according to a running tally by the Islamic Waqf, whose figures have been provided by the Palestinian Authority. Other buildings of historic significance as well as archeological sites have been hit as well, which the PA’s Minister of Tourism and Antiquities says violates multiple international agreements. To name a few: the Hague Convention and Regulations of 1907, the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, and the Hague Convention and Protocol of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

“Palestine is under occupied and by international law, the occupier should protect the heritage sites. Places of value, such as old churches, ruins from the Byzantine era, archeological sites, as well as mosques from different ages in Gaza were both partially and completely destroyed,” Rula Ma’ayah, the PA Minister of Tourism and Antiquities, tells Haaretz. “These are very well known sites and they’re known to be of world heritage value.”

PA officials are planning to turn over their survey of damages to both the United Nations’ Human Rights Council, which will be running its own “commission of inquiry” to investigate possible violations of international law in Gaza. The International Criminal Court may also open its own investigation, though whether it will do so is the subject of ongoing controversy.

From the Palestinian point of view, it looks like the IDF couldn’t care less if it destroys cultural or historic buildings in Gaza, or if it demolishes several dozen mosques in the process of waging war against Hamas. Many Palestinians argue that in this war every mosque has been treated as if synonymous with Hamas, and therefore, fair game.

“This is aggression against Islam,” Abu Bilal Darwish, the director of Islamic Endowments for central Gaza, said as he stood among the ruins of the Al-Qassam Mosque in the Nuseirat Refugee Camp last week, according to an AP report on the issue. “The occupiers realize that our mosques raise men and people who desire martyrdom for the sake of God.”

From the Israeli viewpoint, however, Hamas has turned Gaza’s mosques into legitimate targets by storing weapons in them, using them as place from which to fire at Israel, and as places to hide entrances to tunnels.

"Terror organizations in the Gaza Strip, led by Hamas, cynically abused mosques and humanitarian facilities by using them for terror activities. During Operation Protective Edge, IDF forces uncovered a vast number of tunnel shafts, weapons caches and in several cases rocket launching sites against Israel within mosques and their courtyards,” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an IDF Spokesman, told Haaretz. “Also, during Operation Protective Edge there were at least 170 accounts of rockets launched from positions in the immediate vicinity of mosques. It was Hamas that intentionally chose to establish its offensive capabilities within these premises, rendering them a legitimate target.”

What is and what isn’t a legitimate target will be just one of the criteria that investigators – and the larger world – will look at when the dust settles. In this war of narratives, video documentation is likely to play a significant role.

The IDF spokesman’s office has released videos like this one indicating that some of the tunnels started beneath mosques and went straight into Israel, poised to kidnap and kill Israelis. The video that the IDF released is dated July 30. As part of the narration, we learn that the bombing is being done in the memory of three soldiers the battalion recently lost as well as “to send a message to Hamas.”

Another video made on the same date, of apparently the same bombing in the neighborhood of Kuzaa in the southern Gaza Strip, is more charged. The speaker, who cannot be seen, dedicates the imminent destruction of this mosque to three fallen members of the Givati Brigade, who had died days earlier destroying tunnels: Amit Yeori, Guy Boyland, and Moshiko [Moshe] Davino. The mosque detonates and goes up in billows of smoke, eliciting the cheers of soldiers. The video ends with the narrating soldier intoning: “Long live the State of Israel.”

There are others: The al-Omari mosque in Jabaliya, which is believed to have stood on the same site since the seventh century, was hit by IAF airstrikes on August 2. The portico and minaret of the building, also known as the “Great Mosque,” date back to the Mamluk period, or at least 500 years, according to Maan News, a Palestinian news site. In this piece in the New Statesman, British journalist Donald Macintyre tries to piece together what happened at another Mamluk-era mosque, the Mahkamah Mosque, which stood since 1455.

There is, it seems, a hierarchy of what can be a military target. Hospitals are afforded the highest level of protection: a missile stored in the basement can’t be used as an excuse to strike a hospital full of civilians. Mosque or other houses of worship are a little bit further down the list. They should not be targeted, but if they are usurped for military purposes, their status could be changed.

"Mosques, like houses and schools, are civilian objects and cannot be targeted, unless they are being used for military purposes,” says Bill van Esveld, a senior researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Mosques and other houses of worship that have a special religious, historical or cultural significance have heightened protections under international law and should never be subjected to attack or used for military purposes.”

Perhaps more than any commission of inquiry or court, Israel should be concerned about the court of world opinion – and the impression that the destruction of mosques leaves on nearly 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide.

“No matter how accurate was the information in the hands of the IDF, this does not justify the destruction of mosques,” says Hani Hazaimeh, the managing editor at Arab News, an English-language newspaper in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. As he views it, Hamas is operating from such a densely populated urban area that its choices are few. “Hamas and others were forced [to fight this way] due to the nature of the landscape they are living in.”

We have become used to seeing radical groups blow up houses of worship and signs of cultural and historic significance. We watched the Taliban blow up the Buddhas of Bamyan in 2001, and we have watched as the Islamic State destroys ancient religious sites and even mosques of fellow Muslims – Shi'ites – in northern Iraq and in Syria. But Israel clearly doesn't want to be in the company of such extremism. As such, Israel should consider cooperating with a UN panel, even one it feels is biased against it, and stop barring groups such as HRW and Amnesty from entering Gaza. In short, Israel should be ready to explain why it hit every target it did. Otherwise, it will go down as destroyer of many cultural and religious institutions, which, I want to believe, is far from its intentions. 

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