An Israeli airstrike hit the grounds of the historic Saint Porphyrius Greek Orthodox Church in Gaza City, which was sheltering displaced people, on Thursday night, according to church officials and witnesses.
The church compound, comprising a chapel, seven buildings and a courtyard, was full of Christian families from the Gaza Strip, witnesses said. They said the airstrike happened around 7:30 p.m., when dinner was being distributed.
Videos and images from the scene showed rescuers digging through rubble, working with flashlights late Thursday and into Friday. The chapel was not struck.
The Gazan health ministry, which is controlled by Hamas, said at least 16 people were killed and many others were still buried under rubble. The death toll could not be independently confirmed.
A statement from the Israeli military on Friday said that the church was not the intended target of the airstrike. The fighter jets that carried out the attack were trying to destroy a Hamas command center near the church that the military believes has been involved in launching rockets and mortars toward Israel, the statement said.
“As a result of the I.D.F. strike, a wall of a church in the area of the center was damaged,” the statement said, using the initials of the Israel Defense Forces. “We are aware of reports on casualties. The incident is under review. The I.D.F. can unequivocally state that the church was not the target of the strike.”
The church is a five-minute walk from the Ahli Arab Hospital, where an explosion on Tuesday night killed and injured hundreds of people. Hamas blamed the hospital explosion on an Israeli airstrike; Israel has countered that it was caused by a malfunctioning rocket fired by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
The Israeli military also said on Thursday that it had conducted dozens of strikes against Hamas targets in the Shajaiye neighborhood near the church, calling the area “a terrorist hotbed.” The centuries-old church is in an adjacent neighborhood.
The Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem condemned the airstrike as a war crime.
“The Patriarchate emphasizes that targeting churches and their institutions, along with the shelters they provide to protect innocent citizens, especially children and women who have lost their homes due to Israeli airstrikes on residential areas over the past 13 days, constitutes a war crime that cannot be ignored,” the church said in a statement.
Greece’s Foreign Ministry expressed “deep sorrow” over the strike. “The protection of civilians and the security of places of worship and religious institutions must be safeguarded and respected by all sides,” the ministry said in a statement.
Ainara Tiefenthäler, Iyad Abuheweila and Niki Kitsantonis contributed reporting.