NUSEIRAT CAMP, Gaza Strip — A yellow bulldozer clawed through the rubble of Al Qassam mosque on Saturday, searching for the last body. The crowd looked on without emotion, as it had throughout a day during which two other corpses were unearthed. Someone had planted a green Hamas flag atop the debris, at once a sign of mourning and defiance.
“The Israelis have the idea that Hamas owned the mosque, and they do suspicious activities inside,” Ahmed Jabbar, 42, said matter-of-factly, standing near the debris. “They think there are tunnels inside. It’s all lies. This is Allah’s house. Anyone can go inside it.”
Once viewed as crossing a red line in conflicts pitting Jews or Christians against Muslims, the mosque has become a military target. Israel’s military says mosques are being used to store weapons, cover tunnels and shelter fighters and serve as command control centers and launch sites for rockets. Palestinians say that when Israel strikes a mosque, it mostly kills civilians and destroys their religious sanctuary.
In the month-long war, Israeli airstrikes have struck more religious targets than in Israel’s two previous offensives against Hamas in 2009 and 2012, Palestinians say. According to the Palestinian Liberation Organization, 63 mosques have been destroyed and 150 have been partially damaged. Ten Muslim cemeteries were also targeted.
Surprisingly, there has been little outrage from the Palestinian street or from the broader Muslim world. Violent upheavals across the Middle East, political analysts say, have acclimated Muslims to seeing their houses of worship under siege. Arabic news channels and Facebook and other social media have been filled with scenes of mosques pocked with bullets and damaged by attacks in recent conflicts and revolutions in Egypt, Syria and Libya. The shock value is over, say analysts.
“A strike against a mosque is no longer sensational because of how commonplace it has become in conflicts around the region, and between Israel and Hamas,” said Nathan Thrall, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group covering Gaza, Israel, Jordan and the West Bank.
The absence of much umbrage in the Arab world is also a reflection of its overall detachment to the Gaza conflict, analysts said. Many governments in the region are consumed by domestic instability. Or they believe the war is not between Israel and Palestinians, but rather between Israel and Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been classified as a terrorist group by Saudi Arabia, Egypt and some other Arab countries.
“The Arab street has become indifferent to what happens to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip,” said Mkhaimar Abusaada, a political science professor at Al Azhar University in Gaza, referring to the attacks on mosques. “Many Arab countries are busy dealing with their own internal problems — Iraq, Syria, Libya, for example. And part of the Arab street believes this war is against terrorism, radicalism, and not against the Palestinians.”
The Israel Defenses Forces make no secret of hitting mosques and include them in news releases and daily totals of sites that are struck. They have even released videos that they say illustrates how mosques have been strategic military assets for Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups.
In one video recorded on July 30, an Israeli soldier narrating the clip first shows the minaret towering above his head. He then enters a basement where there is a deep shaft on the floor that he said would be used to attack Israel. Another side shaft in a wall, he added, was an escape tunnel to let militants come and go.
Miri Eisin, a former deputy head of the Israeli combat intelligence corps, said that Hamas has used mosques as bases and refuges in all three conflicts with Israel. In this way, she added, they are following Lebanon’s Hezbollah, the Shiite Islamist movement that also employed mosques in its 2006 war against Israel.
“I can assure you if Israel hits a mosque it is because it became a military target,” said Yoram Schweitzer, former head of the Israeli military’s counterterrorism desk and now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. “Israel knows that hitting a mosque without good reason creates the potential for real blowback.”
Thrall, of the International Crisis Group, said that Hamas as an insurgent force has greatly improved its fighting capabilities, meaning that it may no longer need mosques to serve as protection the way it once did. Hamas and the other militant factions now have remote-controlled rocket launchers that pop out of the ground and extensive networks of tunnels to protect weapons, fighters and command and control centers. They don’t need a basement in a mosque, he said.
In the current offensive, said Eisin, Israel has seen Hamas and the other factions employ ambulances, “TV” trucks, U.N. schools and abandoned hospitals, as well as mosques. “Anytime Hamas perceives something as inviolate, they will take advantage of it and use it,” she said.
This put Israel in a difficult position, but rules of engagement and international law support striking even mosques. “When you respond to a source of fire, it is not a war crime, even if it is a mosque,” Eisen said.
The use of propaganda — trying to show that Israel is hitting without cause or proportion civilians and civilians sites, like mosques, hospitals and schools — is a central mission for Hamas and one of its key war aims, Schweitzer said.
There have, however, been clear-cut cases where Israel has killed civilians when striking a mosque. On Friday, an Israeli airstrike on Al Noor Al Muhammadi mosque in the Sheik Adwan neighborhood of Gaza City killed a 10-year-boy named Ibrahim Dawawsa. He had gone there to play before Friday prayers, said relatives.
Saturday’s attack on Al Qassam Mosque killed a local Hamas leader who was praying inside during pre-dawn prayers, according to Palestinian news reports. But the identities of the other two who died were unknown. Residents said they all used the mosque to pray, not only Hamas members.
As the bulldozer picked up a tangle of concrete and steel, some residents said they were outraged by Israel’s attacks on mosques. But they were too afraid to hold protest rallies. The war, they said, has forced them to stay inside their homes or seek refuge in U.N. schools or other areas. They also worried that Israel would target any large gathering of Palestinians.
“We feel so insecure,” Jabbar said. “Do you think we can go out and protest? We’re afraid we’ll be hit by the Israeli jets.”
But the mosque attacks, others said, will have consequences for the future.
“This makes matters worse,” said Bajes Ehsawi, 64, a resident, as he watched the bulldozer. “The only relationship between Palestinians and Israelis will be jihad.”