Israel Palestine Conflict

In Gaza, Palestinians search for bodies of loved ones under piles of rubble

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The wreckage goes on for block after devastated block, the smell is sickening, and 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, all of them killed in Israeli missile strikes. The corpses are there, somewhere in Gaza’s rubble.

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More than five weeks into Israel’s relentless war against Hamas, some streets are now more like graveyards.

Palestinians search for casualties under the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli strikes in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, October 17, 2023. (Reuters)
Palestinians search for casualties under the rubble of a building destroyed by Israeli strikes in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, October 17, 2023. (Reuters)

Israel says it launched its operation on Hamas, the militant group behind the deadly October 7 attack.

Very often, though, the victims are everyday Palestinians.

The UN humanitarian affairs office estimates that about 2,700 people, including 1,500 children, are missing and believed buried in the rubble. In addition, more than 11,200 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and children, have been confirmed killed by Israel in Gaza since the start of the war, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza.

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

The search is particularly difficult in northern Gaza, including Gaza City. Israeli ground forces have largely taken control there.

Palestinian man Mohammad Abu Daqa, who survived Israeli strikes that killed 8 family members and still searches for three others who are still trapped under the rubble of his house, reacts with a relative in front of the ruins in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 15, 2023. (Reuters)
Palestinian man Mohammad Abu Daqa, who survived Israeli strikes that killed 8 family members and still searches for three others who are still trapped under the rubble of his house, reacts with a relative in front of the ruins in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip October 15, 2023. (Reuters)

The combat and evacuation appeals by the Israeli military have sent hundreds of thousands of civilians fleeing to the southern part of Gaza.

But even in the south, continued Israeli airstrikes and shelling mean 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 one of its spokesman.

More than half of its vehicles are now either without fuel or have been damaged by strikes, the department said.

Men check the bodies of people killed in bombardment that hit a school housing displaced Palestinians, as they lie on the ground in the yard of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on November 10, 2023. (AFP)
Men check the bodies of people killed in bombardment that hit a school housing displaced Palestinians, as they lie on the ground in the yard of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City on November 10, 2023. (AFP)

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.

At least five large bulldozers are needed just to search a series of collapsed high-rise buildings in the coastal town of Deir al-Balah, said Brig. Rami Ali al-Aidei.

This means that bodies, and the desperate people searching for them, are not the focus.

“The priority after the bombardment is for survivors rather than the martyrs,” said al-Aidei. “But after retrieving those who remain alive and wounded from the sites which were targeted, we work on pulling out the martyrs.”

Palestinians carry a child killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip during his funeral at a UN-run school in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. (AP)
Palestinians carry a child killed in the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip during his funeral at a UN-run school in Deir al Balah, Gaza Strip, Friday, Oct. 27, 2023. (AP)

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

“The bodies of 10 martyrs have been pulled out, and a large number of bodies remain under the rubble,” said Abu Sama, 30, describing how families dig through the wreckage of the building where his aunt lived without any tools.

The result is a community where horror has become familiar.

In the Bureij refugee camp, Ezz al-Deen searches for the body of his father.

“When someone loses his father, he feels that his life is missing something.” al-Deen said. “If he remained here (under the rubble) I won’t relax and will dream about him every night, and that would be a nightmare.”

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