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War on Gaza: Palestinians recover bodies left by Israeli army during al-Shifa raid

Medical personnel say they are trying to identify decomposed bodies before burying them elsewhere
Emergency services and Civil Defence personnel carry one of the recovered bodies in al-Shifa Medical Complex in Gaza City on 8 April, 2024 (Mohammed al-Hajar/MEE)
Emergency services and civil defence personnel carry a recovered body from al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, 8 April 2024 (Mohammed al-Hajar/MEE)
By Mohammed al-Hajjar in Gaza, occupied Palestine and Nader Durgham in Beirut

Palestinians are recovering the bodies of those killed by Israel’s two-week raid on al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, but identification is proving difficult because of the state of decomposition. 

After Israeli forces withdrew from the hospital on 1 April, teams from several government ministries have been deployed to al-Shifa to remove and identify bodies before burying them in cemeteries.

"We are now digging up all the martyrs that were executed by the [Israeli] army," Hussein Mahassen, ambulance director in the Gaza Strip, told Middle East Eye.

"Our capacities are very limited, as we are working with just one bulldozer."

While it is unclear how many bodies have been buried in the hospital’s yard, the Civil Defence said that they have recovered 409 bodies from the medical complex since the withdrawal of Israeli forces.

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Mahassen said his team expects to find between 200 and 300 bodies buried in the ground in al-Shifa, but cannot confirm this number.

"We have women and children tied and handcuffed," he added, describing some of the bodies they have recovered. "They will be taken out and have their relatives identify them. They will then be buried in the known cemeteries in the Gaza Strip."

A forensic team write on the shroud of one of the recovered bodies in al-Shifa hospital on 8 April, 2024 (Mohammed al-Hajjar/MEE)
A forensic team write on the shroud of one of the recovered bodies in al-Shifa hospital on 8 April 2024 (Mohammed al-Hajjar/MEE)

Reports emerging from the hospital and its vicinity following the Israeli army’s raid spoke of torture against detained Palestinians, with medical teams in al-Shifa currently documenting these cases.

"There are signs of torture on some of the arms and bodies we pulled out," Mahassen said.

Bodies unrecognisable

Medical and forensic teams said that their mission is particularly difficult because of the state of the remains.

Khalil Hamada, the director general of medicine and forensic laboratory, told MEE they are trying to gather what remains from the bodies of those killed.

"The bodies were torn apart and have decomposed, it is now very difficult to recognise them," he said.

"The families are trying to identify what remains of their killed relatives."

Hamada added that there are no genetic analysers in Gaza, making it impossible to have DNA verifications.

Teams from Gaza's ministries of health, interior and justice continuing their search and recover operations in al-Shifa hospital on 8 April 2024 (Mohammed al-Hajjar/MEE)
Teams from Gaza's ministries of health, interior and justice continuing their search and recover operations in al-Shifa hospital on 8 April 2024 (Mohammed al-Hajjar/MEE)

The Israeli attack on al-Shifa, which involved burning and destroying the hospital's buildings, also meant that the medical and forensic teams cannot use any X-ray machines anymore.

Hospitals have special protections under international law, but Israel claimed al-Shifa was a central command and control centre for Hamas. Rights groups and international lawyers say Israel has failed to provide sufficient evidence to back up its claim.

"This criminal occupation does not care about international laws or humanity, it only cares about killing the Palestinian people," Hamada said.

'They lied dead with us for three days'

Amira al-Safadi, a doctor at al-Shifa, said that some of the bodies were initially left to rot among people who were besieged in the hospital for days, before Israeli forces allowed them to buried.

Safadi herself was forced to stay in the hospital's reception with a group of people for two weeks.

Al-Shifa hospital and surrounding areas completely destroyed

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"Among the wounded that they brought down from the ICU to us, at the reception, around 16 died," she told MEE.

"They laid dead with us for three days."

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"We asked [the Israelis] to bury them because they were going to decompose, the smell was very strong, and we were tired."

Israeli soldiers instructed Safadi and those with her to get the bodies outside the building, where they were left for a night, before allowing them to bury them the next night.

According to Safadi, the Israeli army repeatedly bulldozed the hospital's yard where bodies of Palestinian killed in its first raid in November were buried.

“They bulldozed the entire area, flipping the martyrs,” the doctor said.

Gaza's health ministry says that over 33,360 Palestinians have been killed by Israel since it launched its war on Gaza on 7 October 2023 following a Hamas-led attack on southern Israel over 1,100 people.

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