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Israeli attack on Gaza mosque smacks more of punishment than of necessity

Palestinian Imam Khalil Harrarah, 75, stands by the ruins of the mosque of Ali El Muntar located on a hilltop in the eastern Shejaya district of Gaza City on July 27, 2015. The hilltop has never seen peace in Gaza's antiquity nor in modern times.

Heidi Levine for The Globe and M/The Globe and Mail

The imam looked mournful, not reproachful, when he met me climbing down from the debris of his destroyed mosque.

Photographer Heidi Levine and I had clambered to the top of what was left of the Ali al-Muntar mosque to shoot a video closing to an item that will appear soon on globeandmail.com.

The mosque sits atop a steep hill called al-Muntar on the northeastern outskirts ‎of Gaza, one of the world's oldest cities.

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This is the hill Samson is believed to have climbed, carrying with him the enormous Gates of Gaza.

It has a magnificent view to the west, over the city and out to the Mediterranean, as well as over the glen to the east from where invading armies always have come, and to the Hebron Ridge beyond it.

Khalil Harrah, 75, has been imam at Ali al-Muntar for more than 40 years.

‎He still can't comprehend Israel's destruction of this building during the 51-day war last summer against Hamas in Gaza. "Armies have come and gone, but none has deliberately attacked the mosque until now," he said.

The mosque is at least a hundred years old. While some claim it dates back to the time of Saladin a thousand years ago, the only historic references I could find were in dispatches from British forces during the First World War.

Scores of British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers were killed in repeated attempts to defeat the Turkish forces camped atop al-Muntar as the Allied expeditionary force advanced toward Jerusalem.

But in all the eventually successful assaults, the mosque remained standing.

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"When the Israelis occupied Gaza in 1967, they recognized it as a special place," said Mahmoud Unis Harrah, 70, the imam's younger brother. "They posted a sign that said 'Holy Place,'" so that it would not be desecrated. And as long as Israel occupied the Gaza Strip – until 2005 – the mosque was safe.

During those years, Israelis from nearby communities often came to visit the site and to enjoy the view of their co-operative farms and homes.

The mosque withstood the 2008-09 Israeli war against Hamas and the shorter 2012 war as well.

But not last summer's invasion.

Imam Harrah and his brother now preach at a makeshift mosque beneath a tarpaulin with three portable speakers amplifying their call to prayer. The brothers insist that the mosque will be rebuilt. "But you can't replace the history that has been lost," the imam said.

It's hard to understand why this old place was levelled. Israel didn't need its strategic outlook – ‎it has aerial balloons and drones with much better views of the area.

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‎No tunnels would have emanated from this high ground, and any Hamas or other Palestinian forces there could have been defeated from the air without destroying the mosque and the large concrete water tower that also sat on the hilltop, bringing water to the community below.

Israel could have occupied the hilltop without destroying the mosque and it is not one of the religious sites claimed to be hiding Hamas rockets and other munitions.

The attack smacks more of punishment than of military necessity. And the imam and followers at Ali al-Muntar, who remember appreciatively how Israel safeguarded the place in the past, are at a loss to explain what they did to deserve this.

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