Palestinians struggle to find dead from debris as Israel turns Gaza into graveyard

The UN humanitarian affairs office estimates that about 2,700 people, including 1,500 children, are missing and believed buried in the ruins. (Photo/AP)

More than five weeks into Israel’s war on besieged Gaza, some streets in the Palestinian enclave are more like graveyards. The wreckage goes on for block after devastated block.

The smell is sickening. Every day, hundreds of people claw through tonnes of rubble with shovels, iron bars and their bare hands.

They are looking for the bodies of their children. Their parents. Their neighbours. All of them killed in Israeli missile strikes. The corpses are there, somewhere in the endless acres of destruction.

Officials in besieged Gaza say they don't have the equipment, manpower or fuel to search properly for the living, let alone the dead.

Israel claims without proof its strikes target fighters and the infrastructure of Hamas.

The victims, however, are the everyday Palestinians, many of whom have yet to be found.

Omar al Darawi and his neighbours have spent weeks searching the ruins of a pair of four-story houses in central Gaza.

Forty-five people lived in the homes; 32 were killed by Israel. In the first days after the attack, 27 bodies were recovered. The five still missing were al Darawi’s cousins.

They include Amani, a 37-year-old stay-at-home mom whose husband and four children also died. There’s Aliaa, 28, who was taking care of her ageing parents. There's another Amani, who died with her 14-year-old daughter.

Her husband and their five sons survived.

"The situation has become worse every day," said the 23-year-old, who was once a college journalism student.

The smell has become unbearable.

"We can’t stop," he said. "We just want to find and bury them" before their bodies are lost in the rubble forever.

Nowhere is safe

Israel's war on besieged Gaza has so far killed at least 12,000 Palestinians, 5,000 of them children and 3,300 women. The UN humanitarian affairs office estimates that about 2,700 people, including 1,500 children, are missing and believed buried in the ruins.

The missing add layers of pain to Gaza's families, who are overwhelmingly Muslim.

Islam calls for the dead to be buried as quickly as possible, with the shrouded bodies turned to face the holy city of Mecca.

Traditionally, the deceased's body is washed by family members with soap and scented water, and prayers for forgiveness are said at the gravesite.

The search is particularly difficult in northern Gaza, including Gaza City, where Israeli invading forces have pulverised the area with air and land strikes.

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled southward, terrified by the Israeli bombardment and its ultimatums to flee the area.

In the south, continued Israeli air strikes and shelling even targeted safe routes and safehouses for civilians, such as churches, schools, and mosques, meaning nowhere is safe in the tiny enclave.

The Palestinian Civil Defence Department, Gaza's primary search-and-rescue force, has had more than two dozen workers killed and over 100 wounded since the war began, said spokesperson Mahmoud Bassal.

More than half its vehicles are either without fuel or damaged by strikes, he said.

Digging without tools

In central Gaza, the area's civil defence director has no working heavy equipment at all, including bulldozers and cranes.

"We actually don't have fuel to keep the sole bulldozer we have operating," said Rami Ali al Aidei.

At least five bulldozers are needed to search a series of collapsed high-rise buildings in the town of Deir al Balah, he said.

"We’re prioritising areas where we think we will find survivors," said Bassal.

As a result, the search for bodies often falls to relatives or volunteers like Bilal Abu Sama, a former freelance journalist.

He ticks off a handful of Deir al Balah's victims: 10 corpses still lost in what is left of the al Salam Mosque; two dozen bodies missing in a destroyed home; 10 missing in another mosque attack.

"Will those bodies remain under the rubble until the war ends? OK, when will the war end?" said Abu Sama, 30, describing how families dig through the wreckage without tools.

"The bodies will be decomposed. Many of them have already decomposed."

On Tuesday, 28 days after an airstrike flattened his home, Izzel-Din al Moghari found his cousin’s body.

Twenty-four people from his extended family lived in the home in the Bureij refugee camp. All but three were killed. Eight are still missing.

A bulldozer came three days after the strike to clear the road, then left quickly for another collapsed building. The bulldozer came again on Tuesday and helped find al Moghari's cousin.

Al Moghari then went back into the wreckage in search of his father and other relatives.

"I am stunned," he said. "What we lived through is indescribable."

Gaza has become a place where many families are denied even the comfort of a funeral.


Source: TRT