Thousands of bodies lie buried in rubble. Gazans dig to retrieve them, often by hand

‘Will those bodies remain under the rubble until the war ends?’ asks one volunteer, helping families look for their loved ones. ‘OK, when will the war end?’

Palestinians look for survivors after what they say was Israeli bombardment in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza Strip, on Oct. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)
Palestinians look for survivors after what they say was Israeli bombardment in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza Strip, on Oct. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip — The wreckage goes on for block after devastated block. The smell is sickening. Every day, hundreds of people claw through tons of rubble with shovels and iron bars and their bare hands.

They are looking for the bodies of their children. Their parents. Their neighbors. The corpses are there, somewhere in the endless acres of destruction.

More than five weeks into Israel’s war against Hamas, sparked by the Gaza-ruling terror group’s invasion of southern Israel on October 7, some streets are more like graveyards. Officials in Gaza say they don’t have the equipment, manpower or fuel to search properly for the living, let alone the dead.

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

Israel says its air strikes — overwhelmingly blamed by Gazans for the deaths — target the gunmen and infrastructure of Hamas. Israel has vowed to eliminate the group after 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel six weeks ago, massacred some 1,200 people, most of them civilians amid brutal atrocities, and abducted 240 more to Gaza where they are still held hostage.

Hamas often operates in residential areas, and Israel accuses it of using the civilian population as human shields, in violation of international law, including by firing from near mosques, hospitals, schools and UN facilities, storing weapons there, and preventing noncombatants from evacuating areas that the IDF has been urging them to leave as it targets Hamas.

According to Gaza’s Hamas-run health authorities, more than 11,400 Palestinians have been killed, two-thirds of them women and minors. Those figures cannot be independently verified, and Hamas has been accused of inflating them and of designating gunmen in their late teens as children. It is not known how many among its total are combatants, and how many among the dead were victims of misfired rockets aimed at Israel.

Palestinians look for survivors after what they said was an Israeli airstrike in Deir Al-Balah, Gaza Strip on Oct. 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)

Omar al-Darawi and his neighbors 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. 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 aging 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.

The UN humanitarian affairs office estimates that about 2,700 people 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 quickly — within 24 hours if possible — with the shrouded bodies turned to face the holy city of Mecca. Traditionally, the body is washed by family members with soap and scented water, and prayers for forgiveness are said at the gravesite.

Palestinians recover the bodies of the al Meghari family, killed in what they say was an Israeli airstrike in Bureij refugee camp, Gaza Strip, Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Adel Hana)

The search is particularly difficult in northern Gaza, including Gaza City, where Israel has concentrated much of its widening ground operation against Hamas over the past three weeks. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled southward, terrified by the combat and pushed by Israeli warnings to evacuate. There are also Israeli airstrikes and fighting in the south of the strip, meaning nowhere is safe in the tiny territory.

The Palestinian Civil Defense department, Gaza’s primary search-and-rescue force, has had more than two dozen workers killed and over 100 injured since the war began, said spokesman Mahmoud Bassal. More than half its vehicles are either without fuel or damaged by strikes, he said.

Israel initially prevented and subsequently severely limited the entry of fuel to Gaza, arguing that Hamas had been subverting fuel supplies to continue its war efforts, including for generators and other equipment it uses in its vast underground tunnel network. Under US pressure, Israel agreed Friday for two fuel trucks a day to enter the Strip.

In central Gaza, outside the northern combat zone, the area’s civil defense 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 just to search a series of collapsed high-rise buildings in the town of Deir al-Balah, he said.

This means that bodies, and the desperate people searching for them, are not the focus. “We’re prioritizing 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 he says 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 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.

Al-Darawi, the man searching for his cousins, understands that. “Those who found their dead are lucky,” he said.

In response to reports of civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip, the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said that the military carries out “many warning measures before its actions in order to avoid harming uninvolved [people] and even carries out many humanitarian procedures to help the citizens of the Gaza Strip.”

“Every strike by the IDF is based on intelligence indications of terror infrastructure or the presence of terrorists in the area of ​​the attack,” the IDF said.

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