Under the rubble: The missing in Gaza

Finding the 7,000 Palestinians believed buried under collapsed buildings is becoming increasingly difficult.

Every morning, 51-year-old Yasser Abu Shamala goes to the place where his family’s house once stood in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip. He starts digging through the rubble with his bare hands, lifting pieces of concrete to try to find members of his family buried under the debris.

Abu Shamala’s family house was bombed by Israeli forces on October 26, demolishing the building and killing his parents, brothers and cousins. The strike killed 22 people with many more trapped under the rubble.

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Yasser Abu Shamala at the ruins of his family house in Khan Younis [Photo courtesy of Mohammad Abu Shahma]

Abu Shamala’s family members are among the more than 7,000 people who are reported missing in Gaza, including 4,900 children and women. The missing are believed to be trapped under bombed buildings, according to Hamas officials in Gaza.

Despite multiple failed attempts, Abu Shamala refuses to quit and has pledged to continue searching for his relatives and recover their bodies from under the ruins of the house. He hopes he can bury them in a cemetery with proper Islamic rituals.

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Israel has dropped thousands of bombs on Gaza since October 7, the day the war started with Hamas attacks on southern Israel. The war is believed to be one of the most destructive and fatal in recent times, having killed nearly 21,000 people in Gaza and 1,139 in Israel, wounding nearly 55,000 Palestinians and at least 8,730 in Israel, and destroying or damaging at least 60 percent of Gaza’s residential units.

As the war continues, finding and rescuing those trapped under the rubble is becoming increasingly difficult.

Primitive tools: The struggle to get trapped people out

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The Gaza Civil Defence is tasked with rescuing people every time a bomb is dropped, but its ability to mount rescues is restricted by a lack of advanced equipment.

Captain Raed Saqr
Captain Raed Saqr from the Fire and Rescue Department at the Gaza Civil Defence [Photo courtesy of Mohammad Abu Shahma]

“The equipment we use is very outdated, and the Civil Defence hasn’t received any new equipment since 2006. The Civil Defence is working with the least minimum of equipment,” said Captain Raed Saqr from the Fire and Rescue Department in the Gaza Civil Defence.

Saqr showed Al Jazeera the tools his team uses for rescue missions. They included a shovel to remove debris, a sledgehammer to break pieces of concrete, a manual cutter to sever metal rods and crowbars to access confined places where hands can’t reach.

“They are simple tools that could be found anywhere or at any craftsman’s shop,” he said.

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According to Captain Anes Wafi, head of the Fire and Rescue Department in Khan Younis, the Gaza Civil Defence has a limited number of machines but is unable to use them due to a shortage of fuel.

“If we had fuel, we would have used a concrete crusher and cutting discs. We would have been more productive. They are completely out of service now because of the fuel crisis,” Wafi said.

Search and rescue efforts for those trapped under rubble continue after Israeli airstrike hit civil residential area in al Maghazi refugee camp, Gaza on December 25
Search and rescue efforts are carried out after an Israeli air strike hits a residential area in the Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza on December 25, 2023 [Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency]

Wafi added that no aid has been provided to the Gaza Civil Defence through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt despite the agency’s need for special machinery and heavy cranes to break down buildings and concrete and remove debris.

“We do not have any capabilities. We need tractors, claw machines and huge cranes to lift the rubble of the buildings.”

This month, Gaza’s media office said in a statement that 80 percent of rescue vehicles and equipment had been destroyed in Israeli attacks on the enclave.

No respite for rescue missions

Israel’s assault on Gaza has continued for almost three months with bombs dropping nearly every day. The ongoing attacks make it difficult for rescue teams to reach the thousands of people who remain buried under the rubble, especially if those areas have been evacuated and blocked off by Israeli forces.

“Sometimes our teams were targeted while they were searching for people under the rubble, or sometimes they [Israeli forces] would fire warning missiles to force us to evacuate the area,” Wafi said.

“Our teams were targeted in Gaza City and in Rafah. Our ambulance car was damaged because of a missile attack nearby. We are always expecting to be targeted in any rescue mission.”

Captain Anes Wafi
Captain Anes Wafi, head of the Fire and Rescue Department in Khan Younis [Photo courtesy of Mohammad Abu Shahma]

Wafi said that sometimes the team has to make the difficult decision to leave someone trapped under the rubble if they determine the rescue mission cannot continue without proper equipment or machinery.

“We had to leave them there since it would take about 10 hours of work, and we would move on to another place that would be recently targeted and needs less time to dig under the rubble.”

Widespread destruction: How Gaza turned into rubble

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The Israeli bombardment has levelled entire neighbourhoods in Gaza from the north to the south.

Some international officials have called the destruction more “catastrophic, apocalyptic“ than that experienced by German cities during World War II while others say Gaza is “fast becoming unlivable”.

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According to the latest data from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Palestinian government, as of Sunday, Israeli attacks have resulted in:

  • More than half of Gaza’s homes - 313,000 residential units - destroyed or damaged
  • 352 educational facilities damaged
  • 26 of 35 hospitals not functioning
  • 102 ambulances damaged
  • 203 places of worship damaged

With nearly two million people - about 85 percent of the population - internally displaced within the tiny enclave, some Palestinians have resorted to staying in their demolished homes rather than being homeless.

An aerial view of Palestinian search and rescue team and civilians gathering to conduct search and rescue operation among rubble of buildings in Deir Al Balah
Emergency workers and civilians gather to conduct a search and rescue operation in the rubble of buildings in Deir el-Balah on December 2, 2023 [Ashraf Amra/Anadolu Agency]

No end to the war is in sight, but experts are already worried that it could take years to clear the rubble and find those trapped underneath.

The Mines Advisory Group, which works to clear landmines in conflict zones, said unexploded ammunition in Gaza will make it particularly difficult to clear the debris and would require unprecedented efforts.

Source: Al Jazeera