GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – One family buried a slain son over his grandfather. Another bundled up the tiny bodies of three young cousins and lowered them into the grave of a long-dead aunt. A man was laid to rest with his brother.
More than two weeks into the Israeli offensive that has killed more than 940 Palestinians, Gazans are struggling to find places to bury their dead. Cemeteries throughout Gaza City that were closed for new burials have now reopened.
"Gaza is all a graveyard," gravedigger Salman Omar said Tuesday as he shoveled earth in Gaza City's crammed Sheik Radwan cemetery, a cigarette dangling from his lips.
Just six miles wide and 25 miles long, Gaza has always suffered from a shortage of burial space. But Gazans say Israel's shelling and ground offensive have made it impossible for residents to reach Martyrs Cemetery — the only graveyard in the area with space to dig fresh graves.
The offensive is aimed at crushing the militant group Hamas and ending its rocket attacks on southern Israel. But Palestinian medical officials say roughly half the dead are civilians.
Among them are the Samouni cousins, 5-month-old Mohammed, 1-year-old Mutasim and 2-year-old Ahmed, whose family hurriedly dug up the grave of an aunt to lay them to rest last week.
"We buried them quickly," said Iyad Samouni, 26, speaking from al-Awda hospital in Gaza City, where he was being treated for shrapnel wounds. "We were afraid we'd be shelled. My relatives were trying to open other graves to prepare for the other dead, but we didn't get time."
He said the family fled the graveyard after they came under fire from a warplane.
The three boys were killed Jan. 5 in what the family and the United Nations said was an Israeli shelling attack on a house in eastern Gaza where they had evacuated on soldiers' orders to avoid nearby fighting.
Many members of the clan were wiped out. The exact number is unknown — figures vary from 14 to 30 people. Medics believe there are still bodies buried under the rubble that cannot be reached because of fighting in the area.
Israel's military denies the account, but says the house may have come under attack in crossfire with Hamas militants.
At Sheik Radwan on Tuesday, mourners pulled away the slabs of concrete covering the graves of long-deceased relatives, pushed the bones aside and lowered in the newly dead.
"You have a martyr: you need an immediate solution," Omar, 24, said, using the term many Gazans use for Palestinians killed by Israeli fire and referring to Islamic law, which requires the dead be buried as soon as possible.
"You look for where your grandmother, uncle or mother was buried, and bury them there. If there's three or four, bury them in the same grave," he said, drawing on a cigarette as he dug.
Nearby, relatives hammered away at the concrete tomb of Moyhideen Sarhi, killed last May in an Israeli strike against Hamas militants. His brother Kamel, 22, also a Hamas militant, was killed Tuesday.
The family feared approaching Martyrs Cemetery and decided to lay Kamel next to his brother.
"As they were in life they are in death," said their cousin, Salim, 28, as other relatives pushed aside the slab protecting Mohyideen's remains and kissed his shroud before lowering his brother's body on top.
Even the pathways in the hilly cemetery were filled with graves. The older ones had marble slabs, a reminder of more affluent times. Relatives of the newly buried make do with a small tile or a name etched in concrete. For others, there was no name at all, just the tombstone of the relative buried there first.
One family arrived with their 14-year-old son, who they said was killed in an Israeli strike.
A gravedigger approached, asking if the family had a deceased relative whose grave they could reopen. Street children hoping for small change scrambled to look for graves the family could use.
Nearby, men in jeans dug up their grandfather's grave. The loud crashing sound of an airstrike nearby made some of them look up. Their relative, Mohammed Abu Leila, was a militant killed in the fighting.
"I've buried a policeman in his mother's grave," said Omar, the gravedigger. "I buried three brothers in one hole. I buried children with their mothers. You don't ask questions: it's just important to find a place and bury them."