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Mass graves, unclaimed bodies and overcrowded cemeteries. The war robs Gaza of funeral rites

DEIR AL-BALAH, Gaza Strip (AP) — It was neither the place nor the time for a proper goodbye, said Omar Dirawi. Not here, in this dusty field strewn with dead people wrapped in blankets and zipped up in body bags. And not now, as Israeli airstrikes crashed around him for the third week, erasing more of his neighborhood and sundering hundreds of families and friendships.

Yet on this October week in Gaza’s central town of Zawaideh, the 22-year-old Palestinian photojournalist buried 32 members of his family who were killed in Israeli air raids last Sunday.

Dirawi’s aunts, uncles and cousins from Gaza City had heeded Israeli military evacuation orders and taken refuge in his home farther south. Days later Dirawi was unloading their bodies from the back of a truck, digging a narrow trench partitioned with cinder blocks and reciting abbreviated funeral prayers before nightfall, when Israeli warplanes screeched and everyone ran indoors.

“There’s nothing that feels right about this,” Dirawi said of the mass burial. “I haven’t even grieved. But I had no choice. The cemetery was full and there was no space.”

Palestinians say this war is robbing them not only of their loved ones but also of the funeral rites that long have offered mourners some dignity and closure in the midst of unbearable grief. Israeli strikes have killed so many people so quickly that they’ve overwhelmed hospitals and morgues, making the normal rituals of death all but impossible.

And along with everything else stolen by the bombardments, Palestinians on Saturday added another loss: cellular and internet service. A few in Gaza who managed to communicate with the outside world said people could no longer call ambulances or find out if loved ones living in different buildings were still alive.

Since Oct. 7, when Hamas mounted a bloody and unprecedented attack on Israel, the Israeli military’s response has left over 7,700 Palestinians dead, said the Gaza-based Health Ministry. Of the dead, it added, nearly 300 have not been identified. Fear and panic were spreading Saturday as Israel expanded its ground incursion and intensified bombardment.

An estimated 1,700 people remain trapped beneath the rubble as Israel’s air raids impede and imperil civil defense workers, one of whom was killed during a rescue mission Friday. Sometimes it takes days for medics to recover bodies. By then corpses are often too swollen and disfigured to be recognizable.

“We have hundreds of people being killed every day,” said Inas Hamdan, a Gaza-based communications officer for the U.N. Palestinian refugee agency. “The whole system in Gaza is overwhelmed. People are dealing with the dead however they can.”

Overcrowded cemeteries have compelled families to dig up long-buried bodies and deepen the holes. That’s how survivors interred Bilal al-Hour, a professor at Gaza’s Al Aqsa University, and 25 of his family members killed Friday in airstrikes that razed their four-story home in Deir al-Balah.

Al-Hour’s brother, Nour, exhumed his family’s old plots in the local cemetery Friday to place the newly deceased inside. His hands dark with grave dirt, he became breathless listing each relative being lowered into the ground.

“There’s Bilal’s son with his wife and children, his other younger son and of course his daughter who finished high school last year and was supposed to be a doctor,” he said before trailing off and quoting the Quran. “To Allah we belong, and to him is our return.”

Overflowing morgues have compelled hospitals to bury people before their relatives can claim them. Gravediggers have laid dozens of unidentified bodies side by side in two large backhoe-dug furrows in Gaza City now holding 63 and 46 bodies, respectively, said Mohammed Abu Selmia, the general director of Shifa Hospital.

The nightmare of ending up as an anonymous body piled up in a morgue or chucked into the dirt has increasingly haunted Palestinians in Gaza.

To increase the chances of being identified if they die, Palestinian families have begun wearing identification bracelets and scrawling names with marker on their children’s arms and legs.

In some cases, bodies have decomposed so much they are unrecognizable even to their kin. In other cases, not a single family member may survive to claim the dead.

“We often find this during our work, even just (Thursday) night in Gaza City when 200 people were killed, there were names and ID numbers written in ink on the children’s bodies,” said Mahmoud Basal, spokesperson of the Palestinian Civil Defense. “It’s a pain I can’t describe, to see that.”

Gaza’s Awqaf ministry, which is in charge of religious matters, now urges hasty burials and authorizes the digging of mass graves due to the “large numbers of people killed and the small amount of space available.” Each Gaza governorate has at least two mass graves, authorities say, some holding over 100 people.

In the crowded Nuseirat refugee camp in central Gaza on Wednesday, a fierce barrage of Israeli airstrikes leveled an entire block — some 20 multi-story buildings — killing 150 people and trapping more beneath the ruins, residents said. Shell-shocked survivors staggered out of the hospital, not knowing what to do with the dead.

“We have no time to do anything and no space anywhere,” said 52-year-old Khalid Abdou from the camp. “All we can do is dig a big hole with our hands. Then we throw bodies inside.”

Residents of Nuseirat peered into dozens of blood-smeared body bags arranged outside Al Aqsa Martyrs Hospital on Thursday, searching for familiar faces, Abdou said. Workers labeled some body bags “unknown” before shoveling them into mass graves. Families were buried together.

When trying to sleep, Abdou said he hears sounds from that night — the thunder of the blast mixing with screams of shock and the cries of children.

But what keeps him up most, he said, is the thought that no one washed the bodies of the dead or changed their clothes before burial. No one lovingly shrouded their bodies, as is customary in Islam, or held a poignant service.

And certainly no one served the traditional bitter coffee and sweet dates to friends and relatives paying condolences.

“In Islam we have three days of mourning. But there’s no way can you observe that now,” Abdou said. “Before the mourning ends you’ll probably be dead, too.”

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DeBre reported from Jerusalem.

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