More than 560 Palestinians have been killed in the 14-day battle with Israel. Burying the bodies has become more difficult and dangerous with each passing day.
Movement can be a risky sprint not only for ambulances but also for the beat-up vans that ferry the dead to cemeteries. The central morgue in Gaza City is overflowing, its wheezing refrigerators losing the struggle against the smell. The graveyards are filling, and mourners dig their own holes.
In the early days of the current Israeli offensive against Hamas, the militant movement that controls the Gaza Strip, people took bodies to the mosque and gathered afterward in mourning tents. There were parades and battle flags. Clerics gave defiant speeches.
No more. Funerals are now rushed, anxious family affairs that take place under the sound of Israeli artillery and drones.
The two Hamdeiah brothers were dug out of the ruins of their home in the besieged Shijaiyah district of east Gaza City on Monday morning, not long after an Israeli airstrike killed them. Moataz, 18, and Ahed, 23, were found alongside the bodies of a cousin, Yussef, 22, and three passing neighbors.
A friend of the brothers said in an interview that another member of the Hamdeiah clan was “wanted,” meaning he was a known fighter and the likely target of the strike, which killed six. Israel launched its offensive to stop Hamas from firing rockets and digging tunnels that could be used to kill or abduct Israelis.
The brothers arrived at Shifa Hospital gray and lifeless, their clothes matted and darkened by soot and cement dust. Their family members gathered, and while the bodies were still on the metal gurneys in triage, they wrapped them in muslin cloth and zipped them into white body bags.
Then they tried to figure out where to bury them.
At the entrance of the morgue, Mohammed Jindeya, a teacher, stood watch over the body of his aunt, which was on the floor. She was one of the neighbors killed in the Israeli strike.
“She was just walking by and then . . . ” Jindeya pointed to the bundle wrapped in a blanket at his feet. “There’s no room in the refrigerators,” he said.
Asked how much longer he thought the hostilities would last, Jindeya shrugged.
“Days? Weeks? I don’t think the Israelis are finished killing us yet,” he said. He said he also wasn’t sure where his aunt would be buried.
We are asking permission to go back into Shijaiyah to bury them close to home, but I do not think it will be possible,” he said. The Israeli military is still bombing the neighborhood.
He looked exhausted. Shijaiyah has been the scene of the most intense Israeli barrage of the offensive, as well as running street battles between Israeli soldiers and Hamas fighters, who have used land mines, booby traps and antitank missiles to counter the Israeli advance.
Eventually, the six bodies emerged from the morgue to be stacked into a Volkswagen van, a taxi and a small truck.
As is traditional in Gaza among religious families, the women would not attend the burials, so they approached the van to get a last look. They were possessed by grief. Several collapsed in a near faint and had to be carried away.
The Israeli military has warned residents in wide stretches of Gaza to evacuate their neighborhoods, so many graveyards have become off-limits.
As the van, taxi and truck sped off with the six corpses, family members inside were still making cellphone calls to find a place for them to go.
They eventually arrived at a cemetery in Jabalia, north of Gaza City, and because the area nearby was being bombarded, the family members rushed to dig graves. A dozen other groups were also interring their dead in the sand.
The prayers were abbreviated and quick. Relatives scrawled the brothers’ names on pieces of cardboard and pushed the temporary headstones into sand wetted with buckets of water. By the time they were leaving, one of the markers had already blown away.
Islam Abdul-Karim contributed to this report.