Skip to main content

'Unbearable': Gaza families try to identify Al-Shifa dead

Palestinian forensic and civil defence workers recover human remains from the grounds of Al-Shifa hospital devastated by a two-week Israeli raid
— Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

Palestinian nurse Maha Sweylem came to the gutted shell of the Al-Shifa hospital in northern Gaza hoping for yet dreading news of her husband, who she said was a doctor there.

World Health Organization teams arrived at what was Gaza's biggest hospital Monday to help identify the bodies that litter the ruins.

The Israeli military said it battled with Palestinian militants there during two weeks of fierce fighting last month, with the WHO saying that patients were trapped inside.

Sweylem told AFP that she had not seen her husband, Abdel Aziz Kali, since he was arrested by the Israeli military during the assault. She does not know if he is dead or alive.

The nurse recalled how the Israeli army had quickly surrounded the hospital last month and then used loudspeakers to order that "everyone must surrender. Game over".

"Then, they started shooting at all the entrances, preventing anyone from moving," she said.

"I spent four days there with my two little daughters, without any food or drink. They cried from hunger. When they arrested my husband, he had not eaten for three days."

AFP asked the Israeli army if they knew of Kali's whereabouts, but there was no immediate response.

The Israeli military have long accused Hamas and Palestinian militants of using hospitals and other medical facilities as hideouts and command posts, and their patients as shields.

Motasem Salah, director of the Gaza Emergency Operations Centre, said the scenes Monday at the sprawling medical centre were "unbearable".

"The stench of death is everywhere", he said, as a digger went through the rubble and rescue workers pulled decomposed bodies from the sand and ruins.

Salah said Gaza lacked the forensic experts needed to help identify the dead or determine what had happened to them. So they are relying on "the expertise of the WHO and OCHA (UN humanitarian office) delegation", he said.

They are trying "to identify the decomposed bodies and the body parts that were crushed" from wallets and documents, Salah said.

Relatives were also there "to ascertain the fate of their sons, whether they have been killed, are missing, or have been displaced to the south," said Amjad Aliwa, the head of Al-Shifa's emergency department.

He said they wanted to identify "their sons and ensure they receive a proper burial".

"However, we lack the necessary equipment, and time is not on our side," Aliwa told AFP. "We must complete the job before the bodies decompose."

- 'Partially buried, limbs visible' -

The Israeli military have long accused Hamas and other Palestinian militants of using hospitals as hideouts and command posts

Salah said the psychological impact of this "unwatchable" process on the families is unbearable, in another WHO video from the scene shared with AFP.

"Seeing their children as decomposing corpses and their bodies completely torn apart is a scene that can't be described. There are no words for it."

Several worried relatives walked among what the WHO said were "numerous shallow graves" outside the devastated emergency department and the administrative and surgical buildings.

"Many dead bodies were partially buried with their limbs visible," it said in a statement after its first visit to the site Friday.

"Safeguarding dignity, even in death, is an indispensable act of humanity," the WHO insisted.

A "place where life was given is now a place that now reminds (us) only of death," said Athanasios Gargavanis, the WHO surgeon leading its mission on Monday.

"Hospitals should never be militarised."

For the past six months, Israel has relentlessly bombarded the besieged, densely populated Gaza Strip, killing at least 33,360 people, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

The Gaza war began after an unprecedented cross-border attack by Hamas fighters on October 7 that resulted in the death of 1,170 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP toll from official Israeli figures.

AFP video images from Al-Shifa on Monday showed the remains of several bodies being recovered from one of the courtyards of the hospital and put into body bags.

For the son of one of the missing, Ghassan Riyadh Kanita, whose 83-year-old father Riyadh had taken refuge in the hospital, the news was not good.

"My nephew called us and he told me that they found the body at the entrance of Al-Shifa," he said. "We came and they told us that they found the body."