Another mass grave was uncovered in Gaza, occupied Palestine, in the grounds of the Shifa Hospital complex in Gaza city last week. It marks the ongoing recovery of the remains of murdered friends, loved ones, and family members from over nine mass graves in Gaza, after the staged withdrawal of occupation soldiers from large parts of the coastal prison.

At the time of writing, 520 people’s bodies had been recovered from four mass graves inside the Shifa Hospital in the north, three inside the Nasser Hospital complex in Khan Younis in the center, and one at the Kamal Adwan Hospital and another at the Hamad School in the town of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza.

Paramedics, rescue teams, eyewitnesses and victims’ relatives, journalists and international field teams say that the bodies are mostly of children, women, and elderly people, and that many of them were stripped naked, blindfolded, and had their hands tied behind their back when they were killed. While some have gunshot wounds to the head, others were mutilated and likely tortured. Some have plaster casts on their limbs and catheters or medical tubes still attached to them, with their medical files buried beside them. And 20 people at the Nasser Hospital may have been buried alive, including “a little girl still wearing a surgical gown”.

The occupiers withdrew from Nasser on April 7 and the bodies there have been exhumed since April 21. Reporting from the hospital grounds, journalist Hani Mahmoud stated: “Rescuers say some bodies were found inside plastic bags that have Hebrew writing on them. Some have their hands tied behind their backs and it looks like they were executed and then buried here. Within the past half an hour we’ve seen a group of people coming here – crying parents, family members – searching for the bodies of their loved ones.”

At al Shifa Hospital on May 11, civil defence rescue team member Rami Dababesh told the media that he had seen headless corpses being exhumed from the hospital grounds. The Wafa news agency quoted medical sources as saying that heads detached from their bodies had also been discovered there. The Zionist army had subjected both hospitals to bombardment and a prolonged siege before it stormed them (twice in the case of al Shifa) and the mass graves confirm survivor accounts that the soldiers dragged patients, young people in particular, out of the ICU and surgical departments and into the hospital yard, where they executed them.

During the hospital siege, doctors and medical workers too were obliged to bury patients who had died due to denial of oxygen, medicine, water, food, electricity, en masse in the hospital yard. Survivors say the invading soldiers exhumed these graves, on the claim that they were looking for hostages, and then ran over the bodies with bulldozers, “tearing them to pieces” and “dumping them in different areas” of the now gutted hospital, or stealing them, or burying them back in the ground.

At Nasser, 392 bodies of Palestinians have so far been found, covered with a layer of waste and buried three meters underground. The blue and black body bags containing them are not from Gaza, paramedics said, and they may have been used to heat up the bodies so they would decompose faster.

“Since Eid, I have been monitoring the process of exhuming bodies from this mass grave,” an elderly gentleman, Walid Radwan Ftima, told reporters at al Shifa. “I came to inspect the bodies and found my mother’s body, which I identified by distinctive marks on her feet.”

The International Rescue Committee, based in New York, which worked at the Nasser Hospital “but was forced to suspend operations there as the result of a missile strike on the compound” back in January said the “recent reports... are devastating and confirm the worst fears of our team at the time, that those left behind in the hospital were at risk of serious harm. We had lost contact with health workers and patients at Nasser and now fear they are amongst those killed.”

Survivors of the raid and witnesses who lived nearby told rescue workers where the soldiers had buried the civilians. The teams now exhuming the graves say that some of the victims were shot from behind, with as many as 50 bodies found in one pit at the Nasser hospital alone. Nawal al Attal, mother of a young Palestinian who was at the hospital when the Israelis attacked, said “I am here to find the body of my son, his name is Alaa Emad Salem al Attal. We have been coming here on foot from rather far away, day after day, but we haven’t found him.”

The process of identifying the remains is painstaking. As many cannot come to recover the bodies because of the ongoing bombardment including in Rafah in the south, where most Palestinians are now corralled by the occupation, civil defence rescue leader Raed Saqer stated that: “The identified bodies are delivered to their families and we as civil defence keep the unidentified bodies, take note of any distinguishing marks for each of them, and then we bury them.”

Like the mass graves documented in three districts of Kashmir in 2009, these graves are among hundreds of “random” unmarked or mass graves now scattered throughout Gaza, according to international observers. Unrelenting attacks have made it impossible to reach to the bodies of family or friends to bring them to a cemetery to inter them. Occupying soldiers have also been told to use bulldozers to destroy at least two major cemeteries in Gaza, including one that housed the graves of martyred resistance leaders.

The Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor, based in Geneva, said its field teams had “closely observed” the recent exhuming of several mass graves by Palestinians, and said “a technical committee of experts is needed to investigate the burial circumstances and determine the cause of death” of the victims. It said its teams had earlier documented the recovery of “dozens of bodies” of handcuffed victims in the mass graves of al Shifa, where because the soldiers impeded their recovery for many months, “some of the corpses had also evidently been mauled by cats and dogs.” It added that “thousands of destroyed homes in multi-storeyed buildings that once held dozens of living people” each had become mass graves, as “it is still impossible to retrieve their killed occupants” in the face of the denial of the fuel and equipment needed to remove the rubble, and because “Israeli military operations are still active” in many of these areas.

It said that the “international community must pressure Israel to identify the locations of all mass graves that the Israeli army has excavated in the Gaza Strip, plus take all necessary precautions to prevent Israeli forces from destroying or demolishing them or excavating additional mass graves, stealing Palestinian bodies from them, disfiguring these bodies, or treating victims inhumanely or in a degrading way after they have been killed.”

It estimated that 13,000 Palestinians are now missing in Gaza, either buried under debris or in mass graves, or taken prisoner inside Israel, where some are being tortured and killed. On these Israeli hostages, it urged the International Committee of the Red Cross to “bear its responsibilities and verify the detention conditions of Palestinian detainees in Israeli prisons. The Red Cross must also take public stances and release statements each time Israel prevents it from carrying out its mandated duties,” it said.

The United States, the European Union, France, and the United Nations Security Council and the High Commissioner for Human Rights have all called for a transparent, independent investigation into these mass graves. Back on April 25, the International Commission for Missing Persons, based in the Hague and with expertise in forensically investigating mass graves, said that it stood ready to help.

“The only way that this type of evidence can be preserved is if there is a ceasefire,” Palestinian human rights lawyer Diana Buttu said in an interview with Al Jazeera after the mass grave was uncovered in the Hamad School in Beit Lahiya. “What Israel has done instead is it has tried to distract the world, it’s tried to come up with spurious allegations against UNRWA and against other organisations as well – and instead of people focusing on this genocide and focusing on these war crimes, we see that everybody’s turning their heads in a different direction. That’s why it’s so vital for people to keep their eyes on demanding a ceasefire.”

Buttu added that “Israeli soldiers are rarely if ever charged with crimes and in particular war crimes, especially when it comes to their actions in Gaza. We’ve seen video after video... of them bragging about the way they are abusing and torturing Palestinians... they feel that they will be able to get away with it.”

In a submission to the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions after the Hamad School mass grave was exhumed, a group of Palestinian civil society organisations, including the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre and Al Haq state that: “Over the years, Al Haq has documented the mutilation of Palestinians by the IOF including by slamming, picking up, and dragging Palestinians by bulldozers, and running over Palestinians.

“In one incident, on 28 September 2022, the IOF raided the Jenin Refugee Camp, killed 27-year-old Abdul Rahman Hazem, and reportedly used his blood to write on his body, in Hebrew, ‘the end’. As such, not only does Israel punish their families, in what amounts to prohibited collective punishment... it further punishes the dead by ‘deeming their bodies disposable, ungrievable, [unmournable] and unworthy of dignified treatment, [which constitutes] a form of cruel dehumanization and othering that targets the erasure and expropriation of their memory and the disciplining of their community.”

The submission recalls that Israel had dug up a Palestinian cemetery in Jerusalem in 2021 “for the purposes of establishing a national park”. It observes that while “Israel bears the foremost legal obligation to thoroughly investigate and prosecute alleged international crimes and human rights violations committed by its military... Israel’s investigatory framework falls short of meeting the universally recognised international legal standards of independence, effectiveness, promptness, and impartiality... As a way of example, the Military Advocate General, the key figure within the Israeli investigatory mechanism, ‘performs a dual role: It provides the military with legal advice prior to and during military operations and subsequently decides whether to initiate a criminal investigation’.”

In 1987, during the First Palestinian Intifada (uprising), a Zionist military decision permitted the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in occupied Tel Aviv to dissect and harvest organs from the bodies of Palestinians for purposes of research and organ donation. Later documentaries in 2009 and 2014 have reportedly said that the occupation operates the largest human skin bank in the world, with holdings of more than 170 square meters of human skin. Allegations of organ theft are being made again by medical sources in the course of the ongoing genocide. At the Nasser Hospital on April 25, paramedics and rescue teams exhuming the mass graves said that “some bodies were found with their hands tied and their abdomens cut and stitched in a manner contrary to the usual wound closure techniques performed in the Gaza Strip”. And after the occupation dug up, “confiscated” and later returned dozens of corpses from the Shifa hospital earlier this year, doctors under bombardment told the media that preliminary medical examinations had shown that the bodies had stitch marks on the abdomen, were misshapen, and had corneas missing. On January 30, when the occupiers returned a further 100 bodies of Palestinians inside container trucks delivered through the Karem Abu Salem crossing in the south (which remains closed to aid), some of the bodies, in various stages of decomposition down to “mere skeletal remains,” also showed signs of organ theft.

“The truth is, the occupation aims to destroy all aspects of life in the Gaza Strip, to punish its residents for their refusal to migrate,” said Mohammed Abu al Rous, a teacher in Nuseirat, central Gaza, “but it will not succeed.”

Palestinians have also been reported missing as occupation soldiers withdrew from parts of Gaza. Hundreds have been reported missing in Khan Younis after soldiers withdrew from the city in late April, while an estimated 2,000 Palestinians were reported missing, “vanished from neighbourhoods,” following the occupation withdrawal from other parts of the Gaza strip. Journalists around the mass grave uncovered in the Hamad School yard showed the surrounding streets punctuated with bodies wrapped in blankets, including those of people who were sheltering or hiding in the rubble of destroyed buildings when they were killed. A stream of survivor testimony recounts “field executions” of displaced civilians by occupation soldiers – including a wave of killings of elderly people in winter, such as Dr Akram Abu Hasira and his wife, who were “shot and left to bleed to death by Israeli forces,” according to their son Dr Mahmoud Abu Hasira, and Mr Abdel Nasser Khader Haboub, 62, who was killed when occupation soldiers “fired an artillery shell at him shortly after his release from two-day detention.”

The “missing” or disappeared include those buried or reburied by the occupation in unmarked mass graves, those bodies stolen by Israel and not yet returned or identifiable, as well as those taken hostage into Israel’s prisons which now hold about 10,000 Palestinian detainees.

United Nations human rights representative Ajith Sunghay, who met with some detenus released by Israel in February, told the media: “These are men who were detained by the Israeli security forces in unknown locations for between 30 and 55 days... There are reports of men who were subsequently released, but only in diapers without any adequate clothing in this cold weather.” He said that it was unclear why they were made to wear diapers, but “they were clearly visibly shocked and even shaken when I met them.”

On May 2, the Palestinian Prisoners Society announced the death by medical neglect and torture of Dr Adnan Ahmad al Bursh, 50, by soldiers in the Ofer prison inside Israel, on April 19. Head of orthopaedics at the Shifa hospital, al Bursh specialised in limb reconstruction, a department created after the Israeli bombardment of Gaza killed 2,251 Palestinians in 2014. The occupation abducted the orthopaedic surgeon from the Awda Hospital in central Gaza in December, and continues to withhold his body.

“My friend Dr Adnan al-Bursh was beaten to death by Israeli prison guards,” Palestinian surgeon Dr Ghassan Abu Sitta tweeted when the murder was announced, warning it “is a red-line in the same way the Al-Ahli Hospital massacre was. Once safely crossed the whole project can be rolled out. The lives of over 100 health workers in prisons are in danger.”

Indeed the NATO-Israeli genocide has targeted health workers with a vengeance. As of May 13 an estimated 126 ambulances had been destroyed and 492 health workers killed by occupation soldiers. While it targets schools, including designated UN shelters, in the knowledge that they shelter displaced Palestinians, the presence of mass graves in the grounds of at least four hospitals (including the Indonesian Hospital in Beit Lahiya) recalls the horrid siege laid by Israel on each of these places of healing.

On the muted response of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the World Health Organization, and other organisations, medical student Mary Turfah wrote how in genocide: “Tending – the very act of doctoring – amounts to siding, and Palestinian doctors are killed irrespective of the culpability they are willing to articulate, precisely because to act as a doctor in the face of an exterminatory project is a political act, a presentation of oneself and all the resources they’ve accumulated over decades as a final barrier against death... Through this lens, of course the doctor is a threat.”

Turfah recalled the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, where French settlers and soldiers murdered over 45,000 Algerians in a fortnight, and “regularly targeted medical infrastructure, directly and through siege: the French restricted access to medicines and equipment, enabling the proliferation of infectious diseases and other preventable diseases among the civilian population.

“More than a decade earlier, elsewhere in Europe’s colonies, the Italians defended their right to target Ethiopian hospitals and medical facilities by asserting that ‘primitive’ civilizations were incapable of comprehending and therefore abiding by the principles of the Geneva Conventions and the Red Cross. The Italian Red Cross claimed that the ‘barbaric’ Ethiopian ‘warriors’ believed hospitals possessed miraculous powers, and that they exploited hospitals to ‘conceal ammunition depots and military establishments.’ This second point was denied by doctors on the ground, and it quickly became the Italians’ unsubstantiated word against that of their victims. Though both parties were speaking through their local branches of the ICRC, it’s not hard to guess whose word carried more weight.”

Today, as a result of such targeting, an estimated 10,000 cancer patients face death in Gaza, over 11,000 people are being denied treatment for “life-threatening or critical” wounds, and over 1,095,000 people are suffering from infectious disease caused by their displacement and the denial of clean water and sanitation – an epidemic that threatens to spiral out of control in combination with the “full-blown famine” in northern Gaza, as declared by the World Food Programme, which recently said that owing to Israeli attacks it can no longer access its main warehouse for Gaza.

Announcing the death of Dr Adnan al Bursh, the Palestine Prisoners Society demanded the world go beyond “merely publishing reports, testimonials, and warnings, as after nearly seven months of genocide, all of this has lost its meaning, with the occupation being supported by clear international forces.”

On May 6, Palestinian civil society organisations warned that Israel had set up “ring checkpoints” around Rafah (where it now controls the international crossing and is holding up aid) in a continuing effort to segregate men from children and women as they escape through so called “safe routes,” and “in plans reminiscent of Srebrenica,” execute them en masse.

A former barrister at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia, Geoffrey Nice, told the media that should a tribunal for Gaza ever be held, “it would not be sensible to have participating members from any countries that supported Israel with weapons.”

Soon after the first mass graves were declared, in February, the United States legislature approved the export of 14 billion dollars of munitions, about three years’ worth on average, to Israel.

Al Haq spokesperson Zainah Haroun demanded international access to the mass graves, telling the media that instead of a forensic investigation that could fix culpability at the International Criminal Court, “we’re mainly seeing families of the deceased, or families desperately looking for other members of their families or their loved ones, often using their bare hands to dig into these graves and try and find just a trace of those people.”

Driven around military encampments in army fatigues, 95-year-old Ezra Yahin, former Israeli army reservist and veteran of the 1948 massacre at Deir Yassin, told soldiers: “Be triumphant and finish them off and don’t leave anyone behind. Erase the memory of them. Erase them, their families, mothers and children. These animals can no longer live. If you have an Arab neighbour, don’t wait, go to his home and shoot him. We want to invade not like before. We want to enter and destroy what’s in front of us. Destroy houses, then destroy the one after it with all of our forces complete destruction. Enter and destroy.”

Al Haq with other Palestinian organisations “Urgently requested that States immediately halt all military support for Israel and make clear that attacks on Rafah must be met with a unified, tangible response. This should include a two-way arms embargo, economic sanctions, including freezing the assets of all Israeli government and military officials, as well as travel bans and divestment from all Israeli activities” in occupied Palestine.

Mass grave from the 1948 Nakba discovered near occupied Tel Aviv in 2013

Cover photo Samar Abu Elouf