Even the dead are not spared by the war raging in the Gaza Strip, with bodies dug up by Israeli soldiers and hurried burials taking place in hospitals and even a school.
In Gaza City’s Tuffah district, shrouded corpses of Palestinians removed from their graves lay atop muddied earth.
The desecration is part of a pattern which the Ministry of Awqaf and Religious Affairs of Palestine in the Hamas-run strip said has seen more than 2,000 graves damaged or destroyed by Israeli forces across the territory.
The Israeli military said it “in no way targets cemeteries as such, and has no policy of harming or desecrating cemeteries”.
But it also said “cemeteries or specific gravesites, like other civilian sites or structures, can come to be damaged” during the war.
Responding to allegations that soldiers have snatched bodies from graves, the military told the AFP news agency that it acts “in the specific locations where information indicates that the bodies of hostages may be located”.
“Bodies determined not [to] be those of hostages are returned with dignity and respect,” it said in a statement.
The current conflict broke out following Hamas’s October 7 attacks in southern Israel in which about 1,140 people, mostly civilians, were killed.
Hamas also took some 250 people captive. Israel says 132 of them remain in Gaza, including the bodies of at least 28 people.
Israel’s relentless military offensive has killed at least 26,637 people in Gaza, most of them women and children.
‘Their souls trembled’
At a school packed with displaced people in Deir el-Balah, in central Gaza, Saida Jaber recalled seeing footage on social media of the destroyed cemetery at the Jabalia refugee camp.
“I felt that my heart would stop,” said Saida, adding that her father, grandparents and other relatives were buried at the site in northern Gaza.
“I felt that their souls trembled … I can’t imagine how anyone dares to dig up graves and violate the sanctity of the dead,” Saida said.
With no stop to the fighting, many Palestinians in Gaza have been unable to reach cemeteries and have instead turned to makeshift graveyards.
At a school-turned-shelter in the central Maghazi refugee camp, a woman touched the sandy earth where her daughter had been buried in the yard.
“My daughter died in my arms … we waited day and night and couldn’t send her to the emergency room,” said the woman, who did not give her name.
She said missiles hit the school compound and ignited gas canisters, causing deadly explosions.
A man tending to the site said more than 50 people are buried there, each grave containing three or four bodies, with their names written either on bricks or the adjacent wall.
‘Die of grief’
The number of deaths is so high that victims of Israeli attacks have been buried in mass graves across Gaza.
Rows of bodies have been buried in the grounds of al-Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest, where people have separated graves with stones and plant branches.
“If we went to the cemetery, they [Israeli forces] might bomb us and we’d die,” said Arfan Dadar, 46, living in a tent with his family in the hospital compound.
Dadar said Israeli soldiers shot dead his 22-year-old son while he was returning to the hospital in Gaza City.
“I marked his grave, [but] now the hospital park is crammed with mass graves. I barely recognise my son’s grave,” he said.
Palestinians in Gaza have said they hope they can move their dead once the war ends.
Wael Dahdouh, Al Jazeera’s Gaza bureau chief, said he had “no choice” but to bury his son in an overcrowded cemetery in southern Rafah after the young journalist was killed in an Israeli attack.
“We will transfer him to the martyrs cemetery in Gaza after the end of the war. We want his grave to be near to us so that we can visit him and pray for him,” Dahdouh said.
Jaber said she longed to return to Jabalia to check on the graves of her relatives. “I will die of grief if they were also swept away.”