In Gaza Strip, deaths become part of daily life

Rising toll makes burials hasty affairs


The airstrike that crushed the Najam family home in the Jebaliya refugee camp set in motion a grim but increasingly familiar process as the Gaza war claims victim after victim. A search through the rubble for bodies and body parts. Relatives claiming the dead from the morgue. Then a swift burial in a hastily dug grave with a cardboard name tag instead of a tombstone.

With such tragedies becoming routine, most Palestinians are responding with a measure of sobriety to the violent deaths that are now part of daily life in Gaza.

Some suppress their grief behind a faith that the dead are martyrs in the fight against Israel and destined to go to heaven. Others are just too preoccupied with their own survival to mourn.

Late Monday morning in Shati, a different refugee camp in Gaza City, an Israeli warplane struck a house that stood on a narrow lane. Children, some as young as 8 or 9, helped rescue workers searching the rubble for bodies and survivors by forming a human chain between the targeted house and a main street. They passed to one another bits of debris, which the last member of the chain on the street end dropped onto a growing heap.

Nearly 1,900 Palestinians have died since Israel launched a campaign of airstrikes on Hamas-ruled Gaza on July 8 after weeks of rocket attacks into Israel by Hamas and other Gaza militants. More than 60 Israelis, mostly soldiers, have been killed in the war.

While the Palestinian militant groups openly aim their rockets and mortar shells at Israeli cities hoping to harm civilians, Israel says it is strictly targeting launch sites as well as militants who often embed themselves among Palestinian civilians. Israel also has said it is doing its utmost to avoid harm to civilians, urging them in phone calls, leaflets and text messages to leave areas about to be attacked.

Nevertheless, most of the Palestinians killed have been civilians, and they include some 400 children.

The airstrike Sunday night that killed seven members of the Najam family, including a 90-year-old man and at least two children, was just the latest in what the U.N. says have been dozens of Israeli attacks that killed three or more members of one family in a single strike, with several cases of more than a dozen members wiped out.

Ambulances later in the day brought the bodies of the seven dead Najams to the morgue of the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya near the Jebaliya camp. The next morning, surviving family members, relatives and friends sat patiently alongside others waiting to claim the bodies for burial.

A health ministry official kept them waiting while he showed the bodies to journalists, part of Hamas’ propaganda war with Israel. For the cameramen, he removed the part of the white shroud covering the faces of the bodies and rearranged the severed limbs of one victim.

Later, young men laid the bodies down in hurriedly dug graves in a sandy extension of Gaza City’s main cemetery. The graves were covered with concrete slabs and sand heaped on top. And with that, the seven Najams became a memory, just like others whose fresh graves dot the new cemetery extension, with mortar bricks used as markers and their names written on pieces of cardboard inserted inside them.

Salman, 17, was a childhood friend of two of those buried there. He said the three pals attended calligraphy classes together at al-Tiybah, a Hamas-run mosque. “When I am older,” declared Salman, “I will join the mujahideen.”

The main cemetery for Gaza City and northern Gaza is located east of Jebaliya, which has taken heavy Israeli shelling. And because that cemetery is running out of room, authorities will now allow burials in spaces between existing graves as well as similar burials in smaller, older cemeteries elsewhere.

“Going to cemeteries for burials is dangerous now,” said Moufeed Kafarnah, a policeman, as he waited for the bodies of the Najams to be brought out of the morgue. “Only a maximum of 10 mourners go to burials now.”