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Israel's war is turning Gaza into an 'open-air graveyard'

'An open-air graveyard': In Gaza, there is nowhere left to bury the dead
7 min read
03 January, 2024
In-depth: Over 120 mass graves have been recorded across the Gaza Strip as cemeteries run out of space to bury the victims of Israel's brutal war.

Nearly three months of incessant Israeli bombing in response to Hamas' October attack has ravaged the Gaza Strip, with Palestinian families burying the bodies of their loved ones in makeshift mass graves as cemeteries run out of space.

The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor documented in mid-December that 125 improvised mass graves have been dug in various provinces of Gaza - within residential neighbourhoods, courtyards, squares, roads, markets, hospitals, schools, wedding halls, and sports stadiums.

The graves are supposed to serve as temporary resting places for those killed as Israel continues to press on with its deadly war in Gaza’s cities. The plan is to transfer the bodies to the main and official cemeteries in urban centres once hostilities come to an end.

“Burial operations face great difficulty due to the loss of most or all family members, making burial procedures impossible. Additionally, hospitals face difficulty receiving the deceased, especially with the cessation of operations in Gaza City and the north,” the head of the Euro-Mediterranean Observatory for Human Rights, Ramy Abdu, said in December.

Many hospital courtyards have now been converted into mass graves. The administration at the Al-Shifa medical complex, which was besieged and stormed by the Israeli army in November, was forced to temporarily bury dozens of people on its premises, with bodies in corridors and other facilities, after Israel’s army refused to allow for their burial.

“The yards of the Shifa hospital, Gaza, were turned into a mass graveyard for dozens of bodies and unknown people! The city landmarks have completely changed! Graves are everywhere in hospital yards, on the streets, beneath the trees!” Dr. Nour Naim, a Gaza-based academic and researcher, posted on X.

The Al-Quds hospital also saw makeshift burial operations within its premises in November, after Israeli forces laid siege to the medical compound and prevented the administration from burying the deceased in cemeteries.

In the same period, officials at Al-Aqsa Hospital stated that they had buried 150 unidentified Palestinians in Deir al Balah. Yasser Abu Ammar, who oversees the ritual washing of the dead at the hospital, told Al Jazeera that he encountered unknown victims for the first time in all his years of work. About 80%, he said, were dismembered or incomplete.

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More than 100 bodies of unidentified Palestinians were buried in a mass grave in Khan Younis, south of Gaza, in late November, most of which had been held inside the Shifa and the Indonesian hospitals in the northern Gaza Strip. "There were bodies everywhere. If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I wouldn't have believed it," Umm Mohammed al-Ran, a woman evacuated from the Indonesian hospital towards Rafah, said.

In Jabalia, in the northern Gaza Strip, a father had to bury his baby at the side of a street since he was unable to do so in a cemetery.  Al-Jazeera journalist Anas Al-Sharif, meanwhile, was forced to bury his father, killed in an Israeli airstrike, in the courtyard of a school in the Jabalia refugee camp.

Journalist Adham Al-Sharif, working with a local newspaper in Gaza City, reported on how the only option for Palestinians and medical personnel was to bury victims of the war in new mass graves given the increasing number of victims and the inability to reach many cemeteries.

Palestinians killed in Israeli attacks are buried in a mass grave on 23 December 2023 as some cemeteries run out of space due to the rising death toll. [Getty]

“Gaza has become one giant graveyard! People are forced to bury their dead in schools, hospitals, markets, homes, streets...because they can't make it to a graveyard. Dozens of decomposing bodies filling the streets under IDF; cats & dogs bite away some…Over 125 mass graves!” Muhammad Shehada, a Palestinian writer from Gaza who is chief of communications for the Euro-Mediterranean Observatory for Human Rights, posted on X.

The rights monitor’s founder, Ramy Abdu, confirmed that their team of 41 researchers have documented the presence of mass graves around urban centres across Gaza, with the dead buried hastily in private plots of land and public areas.

“Many graves are located in home gardens or scattered in the streets. People prefer to lay to rest their loved ones as soon as they can, they consider it an accomplishment,” the director told The New Arab.

He echoed general fears that the real death toll in Gaza is considerably higher than reported, with thousands of victims thought to be trapped under the rubble of destroyed buildings.

The pace of civilian deaths in Gaza has been unprecedented, with almost 300 killed every day since the start of the conflict except for the week-long truce, based on data from Gaza's health ministry.

It has become increasingly difficult to compile casualty figures as most hospitals in the coastal enclave remain closed and communications services are hampered by a lack of electricity due to the Israeli offensive.

Doctors on the ground say the death toll is likely to be much higher as it excludes the dead who were not taken to hospitals or whose bodies were never recovered.

By late December, only six of Gaza's 36 hospitals were receiving casualties, all of them in the south, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

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The Palestinian Ministry of Health said about two weeks ago it had lost almost all contact recently with hospitals in the war-ravaged territory. 

The Euro-Mediterranean Observatory for Human Rights has reported that around 30,000 Palestinians have been killed, which includes more than 7,000 estimated to be missing under the rubble, about 70 percent being women and children.  

The observatory’s head explained that their staff obtained this staggering figure after collecting and cross-checking data with the Ministry of Health, family members, and leaders of villages or neighbourhoods.

Abdu himself documented three families of around 220 people each. In one case, all 227 family members of his colleague Yousef Salem were killed after they split up to stay in two homes for safety, the first in Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood and the second in the Rimal district.

One complicated aspect in uncovering mass graves, he noted, is that “dozens” of the bodies found have not been identified by families, which means that in many cases, the fate of war victims is “unknown” while relatives remain without news about their loved ones.

Israel has killed over 22,000 Palestinians since October, including more than 8,000 children. [Getty]

Palestinian rights organisation Al-Haq together with Forensic Architecture provided evidence of systematic attacks on healthcare infrastructure in Gaza by the Israeli military, eventually resulting in the creation of mass graves inside medical facilities.

“One of the most horrific and heartbreaking of our investigations: hospital by hospital in Gaza targeted, put under siege, invaded…mass graves of patients, children and medical staff desperately dug in courtyards,” Eyal Weizman, director of the research agency Forensic Architecture, wrote in a post on X.

The proliferation of victims’ bodies inside homes, public places, and in the streets not only poses a health and environmental threat given the nature of makeshift burials but also has a psychological effect on Gazans.

“It’s like the Gaza Strip is turning into a large open-air graveyard. Those graves will remind people of their suffering all the time,” Euro-Med’s Abdu told TNA, adding that residents will be soon confined to a smaller area of land in what is already one of the most densely populated places in the world. 

What’s even more horrifying is that Israeli forces have repeatedly desecrated burial places in Gaza, destroying or vandalising graves. Videos from Gaza recorded the desecration of mass graves, and reports have indicated the exhumation and defilement of already-buried bodies.

“Just received confirmation that the graves of my great grandparents and their children (my great uncles and aunt) were dug up and desecrated by the Israeli occupation forces in Gaza,” a social media user named ‘Gazan girl’ posted on Instagram last week.

The Euro-Med observatory claimed in November that it had documented Israeli troops confiscating dozens of bodies from northern Gaza’s Al-Shifa and Indonesian hospitals along with others in the south.

It also said that Israel is holding the remains of dozens of Palestinians killed in Gaza since October.

Alessandra Bajec is a freelance journalist currently based in Tunis.

Follow her on Twitter: @AlessandraBajec