Bilal Telawi / AFP / Getty Images

Gaza: No place to bury the dead

With little space and few supplies, doctors have resorted to using ice cream freezers to store bodies of children

Umm Mohammed Abu Sada uses her headscarf to block the stench of bodies, some of which have been lying outside for days. 

"The smell of bodies knocks people down. It is horrible to see human bodies thrown onto the streets like that," she said. "The missiles are hitting everyone. There is nowhere for us to seek shelter."

Corpses of Palestinians have overwhelmed morgues at Rafah's hospitals, and some relatives have been left with no option but to keep their loved ones in commercial refrigerators. At the city's Kuwaiti hospital on Monday, ambulances negotiated their way through crowds of medical staff and families, delivering bodies to be laid out on the gravel outside the building.

Many of the dead have no one to bury them except distant relatives, as Israeli airstrikes on Rafah have killed multiple family members.

On Saturday four members of Mohammed Ayyad Abu Taha's family were killed when Israel struck their home, including two children and one woman, and on Sunday an Israeli airstrike on a home in Rafah killed eight members of the Ghoul family, including two women and three children (ages 1 month, 3 years and 13 years), according to U.N. figures.

Relatives crowded around the bodies at the Kuwaiti hospital, stroking the blood-stained faces of 6-year-old Malak and 13-year-old Ismail. Doctors had no space in the morgue for the family, so those small enough to fit were placed in ice cream freezers.

Ibrahim Abu Moammar of the National Society for Democracy and Law in Rafah said that not allowing Palestinians to bury their dead was a form of humiliation. "Keeping the bodies in ice cream and vegetable refrigerators is a violation of the most basic human rights," he said.

So far, at least 1,860 Palestinians have been killed and more than 9,400 others injured in an Israeli military operation that began a month ago. Sixty-three Israeli soldiers have also died, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker.

Abu Moammar said that at least 300 people in Rafah have been killed in recent Israeli bombings. Prior to Tuesday’s 72-hour cease-fire, the city had been excluded from “humanitarian windows” to provide relief for besieged families and allow them to bury the dead.

Palestinian officials in Gaza say they are struggling with the dozens of bodies that cannot be identified either because of the nature of their wounds or because there are no family members left to do so. And the persisting Egyptian-Israeli siege of Gaza has made proper burials almost impossible.

"Usually in such situations, we build 500 graves, but since cement is not allowed into Gaza, we are unable to build graves," said Hassan al-Saifi, deputy minister of Gaza's Waqf Ministry, in charge of religions affairs.

The ministry said it is putting bodies into a temporary mass grave. But the task of holding funerals has become precarious because of Israel's shelling of the Rafah cemetery. "Where else can we bury our relatives when Israel is bombing the cemeteries?" asked Abu Mohammed Abusuliman, a resident of Rafah, as he wept over the deaths of seven family members.

"This fierce aggression on Rafah has no justification, especially now that the tunnels [in Rafah leading to Egypt] have been shut completely and no one is able to access the tunnel area for many months," said Maher Tabaa, a Gaza City–based economist who specializes in Gaza's commercial crossings and the tunnel economy.

Those who survive in Rafah are deprived of vital infrastructure. Engineers have not been allowed to get in and fix damage to water and electricity lines, and phone networks and the Internet have been cut off, leaving the city's 180,000 residents isolated from the outside world.

At Rafah's Kuwaiti hospital, Umm Mohammed walked toward the garage where bodies were being laid out, complaining about the U.N.'s inability to end the Israeli occupation. "Our faith and trust is in God's hands," she said.

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