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Israeli strike badly damages Gaza's oldest mosque

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The oldest mosque in Gaza dates back to crusader times a thousand years ago, and it has been badly damaged by an Israeli strike. An Israeli official says Hamas militants were using it as cover. People are still living nearby as conditions grow worse. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: I visited the Omari Mosque in Gaza City a few years ago with tour guide Ayman Hassoun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

AYMAN HASSOUNA: You want to enter?

ESTRIN: Yeah.

HASSOUNA: OK.

ESTRIN: Take off my shoes. The carpet feels really nice.

HASSOUNA: Yes. In here, the nave of the church.

ESTRIN: It as a crusader church in the 12th century and, until now, was Gaza's most iconic historical landmark - and its central mosque with blue carpets and stained-glass windows. Now, it's unrecognizable.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSIONS)

ESTRIN: A journalist in Gaza filmed the piles of rubble. You can hear the buzzing of a drone and fighting nearby. The top of the minaret is damaged. Some archways are still standing, but most of the mosque's main hall is covered in rubble - one of many cultural landmarks damaged in Gaza.

An Israeli official who spoke to NPR on condition of anonymity to offer a preliminary assessment confirmed the strike and said the mosque grounds contained a tunnel shaft used by militants and said Hamas fighters had regularly used the mosque for cover. Israel says it's trying to eliminate Hamas so it doesn't carry out another attack like the one on October 7 that killed 1,200 people. The Gaza Health Ministry says the Israeli bombardment has killed more than 17,000 people. The Israeli military dropped fliers today calling on civilians to leave the area near the mosque to escape combat, but many have stayed.

MUSTAFA SHAHAWANI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: Twenty-two-year-old Mustafa Shahawani says he lives near the Omari Mosque and joined a group of residents who ventured out today and saw it.

SHAHAWANI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He says, "it was completely destroyed. It was awful. The mosque is now a hole. This is where we held holiday prayers, Ramadan prayers. All our memories were there."

He stayed for just a moment and rushed back home. Shahawani studied accounting in university. He's sheltering with his grandmother now, who's in her 80s.

SHAHAWANI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: "She cries every day," he says.

Most residents fled weeks ago as Israeli troops invaded. He says he doesn't think there's anywhere else safer in Gaza to go. He got to walk around Gaza City during the brief cease-fire a couple weeks ago.

SHAHAWANI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He saw vast destruction and many bodies in the streets and can't stop thinking about the bodies of a woman and child he saw.

Now the war is back on, and he eats one meal a day with his grandmother - plain rice. We asked him, when was the last time he ate cheese?

SHAHAWANI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He's craving cheese. He and his grandmother ration their little supply of drinking water. Each drinks one cup a day. His last shower was a month and a half ago.

SHAHAWANI: (Speaking Arabic).

ESTRIN: He said, "there's no hope in life. We saw horrible things and just want to live in peace. It's not necessary for kids and women to die."

Residents had been burying their dead in the yard next to his house. He says they ran out of space two days ago.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAYTRANADA'S "BUS RIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.