Gaza Anglican Church, Hospital Sustains Direct Hit by Missile

Jan 27, 2003 11:42 AM EST

There is broken glass everywhere: on the floors, covering the tables, covering papers, on beds. The Christian leaders of Gaza have gathered to offer their support and condemn the bombing of St. Philip's Episcopal Church, located within the Ahli Arab Hospital compound, on January 24. The church is in the center of the hospital complex, and surrounded by buildings flying the Red Cross and Anglican flags. All day a steady flow of friends and visitors came to say "illhamdillah salameh"--"Thank God you are safe."

"We are going to raise hell," Bishop Riah Abu El-Assal of the Anglican Church in Jerusalem told Reuters. "Israelis do a lot of talking about being nice, but apparently they can't distinguish between a church and a foundry." Israeli Brigadier-General Tzvika Fogel told Reuters that helicopters had fired five missiles at a suspected Palestinian weapons factory, but two of the missiles malfunctioned and one landed "in the vicinity" of St. Philip's. Residents said the foundry destroyed in the attack was about 900 meters from the church.

At about 2:15 the night of the bombing, Dr. Salah, Ahli Arab Hospital's physician on call, awoke to the sound of an explosion in the distance. The next explosion was nearer and louder, and the electricity failed. Within the next few minutes he saw the distinctive light of a missile approaching. As he lay in his third-floor bed, he watched as the missile passed within 10 meters of his head and hit St. Philip's Church. It came slowly, and he described "the storm of wind and glass passing like a train through his bedroom." There was glass everywhere: in his bed, in his hair, covering the floor.

An elderly woman had arrived at the emergency room just prior to the attack. She came because she was terrified, and was suffering from high blood pressure. The doctor began to examine her and just then the missile hit next door, and throwing him to the ground. It took a few minutes for the electrical generator to come on, and by the time he was able to get to her, she had died. "She died of fear," he said.

Gone in a minute

Built at the turn of the 20th century, St. Philip's Episcopal Church was reconsecrated in 1996 by Bishops Samir Kafity and Riah Abu El-Assal, in the presence of then-Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, then-Presiding Bishop Edmond Browning, and 34 other primates of the Anglican Communion, along with Palestinian president Yassir Arafat. Its century-old stained glass windows were shattered by the explosion, and crystal from its chandeliers littered the floor. The missile entered through the roof, and left a meter-wide hole in the floor. The altar was covered with plaster and a nearby hymnal pierced with shrapnel. Suhaila Tarazi, Ahli director, said, "We collected money from so many individuals who supported the renovation of the church, and in a minute it is gone." The building was structurally reinforced during the remodeling, but it is an old building, and the walls showed numerous deep cracks.

The destruction did not stop with the church. The pediatric clinics were damaged as well, with the collapse of the false ceiling and ventilation system. Throughout the hospital--the physical therapy building, the staff accommodations, the laboratory, medical records, the morgue, the library--glass littered the floors, windows were broken, doors separated from their frames by the force of the blast. The damage to the hospital is extensive, and many more old buildings showed structural cracks. Boys from the neighborhood collected shrapnel.

Everyone at the hospital the next day spoke about why this happened. No one could imagine it was an accident. The area surrounding the church was covered with the wire filaments that come from guided missiles. Hospital employees pointed out that they are nowhere near other apartment buildings, government, or military facilities. Consensus was that this was a precisely targeted attack. Apache helicopters had not only fired the missile, they had returned to film the results of their attack. These were shown on early morning Israeli television.

"Ahli Arab Hospital is like a small family, we all feel connected," Salah said. "I have been through so many attacks, but never imagined our hospital would be hit, or the church. It is a holy place. We are strong, we will survive. The hospital is running and it is going to continue to run for a long time.'

'Peace will prevail'

Dr. Nabila, an internist, is Ahli's only female physician. Last night tanks surrounded her family's four-story apartment building. They were given five minutes to evacuate, leaving with only the nightclothes they wore. The entire neighborhood was evacuated. Those who specialize in destruction then entered to plant vacuum bombs, which destroyed the building with such force that cement blocks are scattered over a kilometer. Today the streets are filled with neighbors and friends who are staring at the destruction, while children gather to look.

Tarazi moved through the different buildings of the hospital, shaking hands, accepting words of support from the steady stream of visitors, staff, and neighbors. "God forgive them, they do not know what they are doing," she said. "I will repeat the words of Jesus on the day he was crucified. Despite this we will continue our mission of love and peace to all people. I call upon our friends, all over the world, to keep us in your prayers and help us to overcome this tragedy. To work hard with us, because I am sure that one day peace will prevail."

By Nancy Dinsmore