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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Tell us where our children are?’ First bodies exhumed from mass graves at Al-Shifa Hospital after Israeli siege

Health workers in northern Gaza exhumed the first corpses from mass graves in and around Al-Shifa Hospital on Tuesday, after they said Israeli forces killed hundreds of Palestinians and left their bodies to decompose during their two-week siege of the complex.

At least 381 bodies were recovered from the vicinity of the complex since Israeli forces withdrew on April 1, Gaza Civil Defense spokesperson Mahmoud Basal said on Tuesday, adding that the total figure did not include people buried within the grounds of the hospital.

Many of the decomposed remnants they discovered had been buried or were found above ground, officials told CNN on Monday. Israeli tanks crushed others to death, leaving some of those killed completely disfigured and unable to be identified, Basal said.

Witnesses and civilians who were trapped inside the hospital when it was raided say the vicinity “was full of bodies,” according to Basal. “The occupation forces have plowed these bodies and buried them in the ground,” he added.

“We are here to recover the remains of the bodies who are in the sand mounds that the Israeli occupation have plowed in a big pile,” Ahmad Alaiwa, a doctor at Al-Shifa, told CNN.

Some of the bodies were found lying under dirt or plastic sheeting, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a post on X on Tuesday. “Hospitals should never be militarized,” he said in a video message.

It came as staff from the World Health Organization and the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reached Al-Shifa Hospital earlier this month, according to a UN report. Israeli authorities had repeatedly denied humanitarian teams access to the complex, the UN said.

“Shifa has literally become a graveyard… There are bodies still in this courtyard,” Jonathan Whittall, a senior humanitarian affairs officer for OCHA, said in a video message posted on X, on Saturday.

A United Nations (UN) team inspects the grounds of Al-Shifa, Gaza's largest hospital, which was reduced to rubble by a two-week Israeli raid, on April 8, 2024. - AFP/Getty Images

In response to a CNN request for comment, the Israel Defense Forces said that together with the ISA (Israel Security Agency) it had “completed operations against terrorist operatives and infrastructure” at Al-Shifa, and that “approximately 500 suspects affiliated with terrorist organizations were apprehended and 200 terrorists were eliminated.”

It said the operation was “carried out following precise intelligence from the ISA and the Intelligence Directorate regarding terrorist organizations’ activities in the area, including using Shifa as a command and control centre and military headquarters.

“The forces found large quantities of weapons, and intelligence documents throughout the hospital, encountered terrorists in close-quarters battles and engaged in combat while avoiding harm to the medical staff and patients.”

Those apprehended had been transferred for further interrogation to the ISA and Unit 504 in the Intelligence Directorate, it added.

Palestinians walk through the destroyed Al-Shifa Hospital, in northern Gaza, on April 1. Gazan health workers told CNN they exhumed the first bodies from mass graves dug by Israeli forces. - Mohammed Hajjar/AP

The IDF confirmed its withdrawal from Al-Shifa on April 1, when it said that “hundreds of terrorists were killed or captured.”

“The terrorist base in Shifa has been eliminated,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said at the time. CNN cannot independently verify IDF statements.

Israel has for years claimed that Hamas fighters are sheltering in mosques, hospitals and other civilian places to avoid Israeli attacks. Hamas has repeatedly denied the claims.

Israel launched its military offensive in Gaza after the militant group Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, killing at least 1,200 people, including 36 children, and kidnapping more than 250 others.

Israeli attacks on Gaza have killed at least 33,360 Palestinians, and injured another 75,993 people, according to the Ministry of Health in the enclave.

“The smell of the dead is all over the place,” Motasem Salah, an official from the Ministry of Health in Gaza leading recovery efforts, told CNN.

“We try to identify the bodies of these civilians as their families are awaiting news about their loved ones – if they are alive or missing.”

Palestinian forensic and civil defense workers recover bodies at the grounds of Al-Shifa, Gaza's largest hospital, which was reduced to rubble by a two-week Israeli raid, on April 8, 2024. - AFP/Getty Images

Allegations of war crimes

Following the two-week siege, specialized facilities within the hospital complex are “completely out of service,” according to Salah, the Ministry of Health official. He warned that Israel’s bombardment has crushed the medical system in Gaza, diminishing resources for rescue and recovery operations.

“We don’t have pathologists, or expertise in documenting the crimes of the occupation,” he said.

UN experts accused Israel of “denying access to health care to those most in need,” in a statement on April 3.

“The world is witnessing the first genocide shown in real time to the world by its victims and unfathomably justified by Israel as compliant with the laws of war,” the statement added. “The extent of the atrocity is still unable to be fully documented due to its scale and gravity – and clearly represents the most horrific assault on Gaza’s hospitals.”

Targeting hospitals in wartime is prohibited under international law, but those standards change if enemy combatants are using the facility to attack an enemy.

Palestinian forensic and civil defense workers recover human remains at the grounds of Al-Shifa, Gaza's largest hospital, which was reduced to rubble by a two-week Israeli raid, on April 8, 2024. - AFP/Getty Images

Palestinians search for loved ones

CNN video from Al-Shifa on Monday showed huge blocks of damaged concrete spilling from blown-out buildings. UN staff wearing white helmets clambered over layers of debris, as dozens of local workers used shovels to dig for bodies. Others delicately carried decomposed remains inside white shrouds. Palestinian children observed wearily, with the sound of Israeli aircraft buzzing overhead.

Gazan residents gathered at the hospital to search for missing family members. Ghassan Riyad Qunaitta said his elderly father was among those found in the mass graves.

“He was a civilian,” Qunaitta told CNN. “What can we say? They took him from his house and killed him.” CNN cannot independently verify that Qunaitta’s father was killed by Israeli forces.

The IDF stormed his relatives’ house beside the complex and told them to flee south, leaving his father near the fence of the surgical department – where his body was found on Monday, he says.

“We lost his trace since then and we only found his body today… almost a week since they have withdrawn. Until today we have been looking, and we only found him now.”

Gazan teams from the health department, civil defense, crime scene investigation, and forensics investigate what remains of Gaza's Al-Shifa Hospital on April 8, 2024. - Ramzi Mahmud/Anadolu/Getty Images

Another Palestinian at the hospital, Nuha Swailem, told CNN that she was searching for her missing husband, who she said had been detained by Israeli forces during the raid.

“We don’t know their fate or the fate of my husband if they are… buried or detained,” she added. “Tell us where our children are. Tell me where my husband is?”

Palestinians at Al-Shifa told CNN say they want to give their loved ones a proper funeral, lamenting the indignity of their deaths. UN agencies worked with Gaza’s Ministry of Health to offer dignified burials for the unidentified bodies found at Al-Shifa, according to a post on X on Tuesday.

“We want to recover these body remains and to give them a proper burial,” said Alaiwa, one of the doctors at Al-Shifa. “Parents and families want to know the fate of their loved ones, whether they are dead or arrested, or have gone missing.”

Swailem, the Palestinian mother, reflected, “Why did they arrest them? What crime did they commit? The only crime is we are the people of Palestine.”

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