Palestinians dig through Gaza rubble for relatives’ bodies

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By Wafaa Shurafa and Samy Magdy | Associated Press

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. All of them killed in Israeli missile strikes. The corpses are there, somewhere in the endless acres of destruction.

More than five weeks into Israel’s war against Hamas, 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.

Israel says its strikes target fighters and the infrastructure of Hamas, the militant group behind the deadly Oct. 7 attack that killed about 1,200 people in Israel. Hamas often operates in residential areas, and Israel accuses it of using the civilian population as human shields, though it does not explain specific targeting reasons for most strikes.

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

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.

More than 11,400 Palestinians have been killed, two-thirds of them women and minors, according to Palestinian health authorities. The U.N. 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 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.

The search is particularly difficult in northern Gaza, including Gaza City, where Israeli ground forces are battling Hamas militants. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled southward, terrified by the combat and pushed by Israeli warnings to evacuate. 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 spokesman Mahmoud Bassal.

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

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 an airstrike flattened his home, Izzel-Din al-Moghari found his cousin’s body.

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