GAZA (Reuters) - Almost half of the Gaza Strip is a no-go area shelled by Israeli ground forces during almost three weeks of fighting, sending not just the living but the dead in search of a safe place to rest.
Many graveyards - along with whole neighbourhoods once home to hundreds of thousands of people - are too dangerous to approach, pushing some families to cram their dead among the more than 800 killed by the bombs into old, or occupied, graves closer to safety.
A sign outside the Martyrs’ Cemetery in northern Gaza warned that it was full, like many in the crowded coastal Strip, but that didn’t stop the funeral processions from coming.
Grave diggers said they had resorted to burying two people in the space of one, or opening up old family plots, sweeping the bones of their occupants to one side and adding a new body.
“In normal situations people will go to the other martyrs’ cemetery in the North or bury their dead in separate graves. But nothing is normal these days,” said Abu Bilal, a grave digger.
Wiping the sweat from his brow with his forearm, he gestured with his dirty hands and complained that though he had buried hundreds of war victims, working with slain children still left him jarred.
“Death is tough, but I can’t act normal when I bury a child killed by an Israeli missile. The image of his, or her, innocent smile doesn’t leave my memory so easily,” the father of five told Reuters.
Gaza medics say more than 800 Palestinians, most of them civilians including more than 100 children, have been killed.
Israel says it takes pains to avoid civilian casualties and has warned residents in border areas to flee a ground thrust aimed at destroying militants’ cross-border attack tunnels.
Israel has lost 33 soldiers in the fighting and 3 civilians.
Though gatherings attract the attention of the omnipresent Israeli drones which consider open spaces potential rocket launch sites, Ali Hassan and a small group of mourners arrived anyway.
The young man being buried was killed in an Israeli air strike on his family home in central Gaza on Wednesday. The surviving occupants of the house fled, leaving rescue crews working for two days to pull his remains out of the rubble.
“Not only has Israel displaced the living and forced them to seek shelter, our dead cannot be buried in separate graves. They have to be sheltered with corpses of relatives,” Hassan said.
More than 150,000 people have fled to United Nations refuges, including a school that was shelled on Friday, killing 15 people. Countless others have moved in with relatives.
Islamic precepts mandate single graves for the dead, thought there are exceptions for wartime and incidents of mass death.
But where religion forgives, the Israeli-Egyptian blockade grinding Gaza’s economy and does not: cement needed to cover the graves is in short supply, sending the price of a simple burial up by a quarter to around $160 for the increasingly impoverished residents.
“We have no time to rest, dead or alive,” said Hassan glumly as he shook hands with well-wishers.
Writing by Noah Browning; Editing by Giles Elgood