Rafah, Gaza Strip – Umm Mohammed Abu Sada uses her headscarf to block the stench of bodies, some of which have been lying outside for days. Excluded from Israel’s humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, this city in southern Gaza has suffered under continued Israeli shelling and air strikes.
“The smell of bodies knocks people down – it is horrible to see human bodies thrown onto the streets like that,” Abu Sada told Al Jazeera. “The missiles are hitting everyone … there is nowhere for us to seek shelter.”
Corpses of dead Palestinians have overwhelmed morgues at Rafah’s hospitals, and relatives have been left with no option but to keep their loved-ones in commercial refrigerators. At the city’s Kuwaiti hospital, a stream of ambulances negotiated its 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 air strikes on Rafah have killed several members of the same families.
On Saturday, four members of Mohammed Ayyad Abu Taha’s family were killed when Israel struck their home, including two children and one woman, while an Israeli air strike on the Al Ghoul family home in Rafah killed eight family members on Sunday, including two women, and three children – aged one month, three years and 13 years old – according to UN figures.
The smell of bodies knocks people down - it is horrible to see human bodies thrown on to the streets like that. The missiles are hitting everyone… there is nowhere for us to seek shelter.
Relatives crowded around the bodies at Kuwaiti hospital, stroking their fingers across the blood-stained faces of six-year-old Malak and 13-year-old Ismail. Doctors had no space in the hospital’s 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, told Al Jazeera 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,” Abu Moammar said.
So far, at least 1,830 Palestinians have been killed, and more than 9,406 others injured, as Israel’s military operation in Gaza began nearly one month ago. Sixty-three Israeli soldiers have also died, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai worker.
Israel announced a seven-hour humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza on Monday, to take place across the territory except for the area east of Rafah, “where clashes were still ongoing and there was an Israeli military presence”.
The city has been excluded from ceasefire deals over the past few days, as Israel’s shelling has continued unabated. Abu Moammar said that at least 300 people in Rafah had been killed in recent Israeli bombings.
On Sunday, Israel struck a United Nations school being used as a shelter, killing 10 Palestinians. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon condemned the attack, calling it “a moral outrage and a criminal act”.
Meanwhile, Palestinian officials in Gaza 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. The persisting Egyptian-Israeli siege of Gaza has also 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,” Hassan Al Saifi, deputy minister of Gaza’s Waqf ministry, in charge of religions affairs, told Al Jazeera.
For now the ministry said, it is putting bodies into a temporary mass grave until the Israeli assault on Gaza ends. But the task of holding funerals has also become precarious due to Israel’s shelling of the Rafah cemetery. “Where else can we bury our relatives when Israel is bombing the cemeteries?” said Abu Mohammed Abusuliman, a resident of Rafah, as he wept over the death 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 specialises in Gaza’s commercial crossings and the tunnel economy.
In addition to those killed, Rafah’s residents are deprived of access to vital infrastructure. Engineers have not been allowed to get in and fix damage caused to water and electricity lines, while phone networks and the internet have also been cut off, leaving the city’s 180,000 residents isolated from the outside world.
Back at Rafah’s Kuwaiti hospital, Umm Mohammed walked towards the garage where dead bodies were being laid out, complaining about the UN’s inability to end the Israeli occupation. “Our faith and trust is in God’s hands,” she said.