Cemetery Relocation Complicates Gaza Plan

For Miri Gubi, the death of her son Elkana in a friendly fire incident remains fresh three years after it happened. She built a shrine to him on her windowsill, just published a prayer book for the coming Passover (search) holiday in his memory and is so consumed with grief that she only rarely can summon the energy to visit his grave.

The thought that his body will have to be dug up, removed from the cemetery in the Gush Katif settlement bloc and reburied elsewhere when Israel pulls out of the Gaza Strip (search) this summer fills her with horror.

"This will never happen!" she said.

Of all the difficulties the government faces in removing the 8,500 settlers from their homes in Gaza, the planned relocation of the cemetery remains one of the most emotive and fragile issues, threatening to re-ignite relatives' grief and generate the sympathy of even Israelis who strongly support the pullout.

"Someone alive can scream and hold protests, someone dead can't do anything," said Eliezer Orbach, head of the local religious council.

Special teams of soldiers supervised by the army's rabbinical branch will move the graves, and some soldiers have begun participating in seminars to prepare them for the sensitive task, military officials said.

The army's top rabbi, Brig. Gen. Yisrael Weiss, has spoken with Israel's (search) chief rabbis about how the 48 graves in the 18-year-old cemetery, which is surrounded by a security fence, should be moved according to Jewish law, military officials said.

Asaf Shariv, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said the government was less concerned about the cemetery than about the living residents of the settlements.

"There are going to be problems, we know, but not about the cemeteries," he said.

Officials say the cemetery relocation will be carried out in close consultation with the families. Relatives of those buried there as well as local officials say they have not received any notification about the fate of the graves, though some government officials say they have tried to contact the families but have been rebuffed.

"I don't know anything except what I read in the newspapers," said Orbach, who worried that any effort to dig up the bodies and rebury them would be made difficult by the sandy earth.

The issue is further complicated, Orbach said, because the government does not have the moral right to move the bodies without the families' permission. At the same time, the graves can't be left in Gaza after a pullout because of fears Palestinians would desecrate them, Orbach said, recalling that Palestinians sacked the holy site known as Joseph's Tomb in the West Bank city of Nablus in October 2000.

Shariv said the government would not move the bodies against the families' wishes.

"If a family will want to leave the grave in Gaza, it will stay," he said. "It's the family's decision."

Despite the complexities of moving the bodies, the government continues to allow people to be buried at the cemetery. The latest funeral took place at the end of last month.

Gubi, a 50-year-old nursery school teacher, refuses to believe her son will have to be reburied. She is still trying to deal with his death.

In March 2002, Elkana Gubi, 21, was driving along the road out of Gush Katif to head back to his army base after the Sabbath, when an army jeep in front of him came under fire from a nearby Palestinian house and drove off. Elkana Gubi and one of his brothers grabbed their rifles and ran to the spot where the shots originated, but found nothing.

The army jeep returned and mistaking the brothers for the shooters, gave chase and ran him over. He died on the spot.

The army gave him an award for bravery in chasing the shooters. Hundreds attended his funeral at the Gush Katif cemetery.

Gubi said she chose to bury him there because he loved the area.

A picture of her smiling son hangs on the wall of her living room. Underneath is written: "Killed on the Kissufim road by an army jeep. Buried in the sands of Gush Katif, according to his wishes."

On the windowsill is a small shrine that includes his military award, several pictures of him and his M-16 assault rifle encased in glass.

Gubi says she thinks about her son constantly. She rarely visits the cemetery, saying it and the place on the road where her son was killed are the two most painful spots in the world for her.

She was shocked when she heard his body was going to be moved under the Gaza withdrawal plan.

"The army ran him over and the chief rabbi buried him. Now they want to dig him up. This can't be," she said.

She called government officials in charge and demanded that they abandon the idea, she said. They promised her that the utmost care and dignity would be taken with her son's reburial, she said.

"I said, 'No thank you. Once is enough for me,"' she said.