BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip – In the morgue at a small Gaza hospital, the anguished cries of those who lost loved ones in Israeli airstrikes fell silent Thursday when Ahmed Jadallah began attending to the corpses, one by one, on his wooden work table.
With swift, steady movements, Jadallah swaddled a toddler in a white burial shroud and later gently cleaned the soot-stained face of the child's father — Islamic rituals that momentarily reassured the grieving.
Father and son had been killed earlier in the day, along with the child's grandparents and uncle, when an airstrike on an adjacent house sent debris flying into the family's living room.
Over the past three decades, the 75-year-old Jadallah has dressed hundreds of "martyrs" — those killed in conflict with Israel. He said that his volunteer work fulfills an Islamic commandment and that he hopes it will earn him a place in paradise.
Despite his faith, he has found it harder to deal with the casualties from this round of fighting with Israel than from previous ones, especially when children end up on his table.
Nearly 790 Palestinians have been killed, including 190 children, and close to 5,000 wounded in more than two weeks of battle between Israel and Gaza's Hamas militants, according to Palestinian health officials.
"This is the toughest military operation we have witnessed," Jadallah said at the Kamal Adwan Hospital in the Gaza town of Beit Lahiya.
Jadallah's life mirrors the area's turbulent history: the 1948 Mideast war over Israel's creation; the Israeli capture of Gaza, the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967; two Palestinian uprisings, one starting in 1987 and one in 2000; the Hamas takeover of Gaza in 2007; and three rounds of Israel-Hamas fighting in 2008-09, in 2012 and now, in an outbreak that began July 8.
Jadallah was born in 1939 in the Palestinian village of Isdud, in an area that is now part of the Israeli port city of Ashdod. Jadallah and his family fled to Gaza in the 1948 war, eventually settling in the Jebaliya refugee camp, close to the Kamal Adwan hospital.
Over the years, Jadallah made a decent living in Gaza selling vegetables he bought from Israel and producing concrete blocks for construction. In the 1980s, he began volunteering to dress those killed in confrontations with Israel for burial.
"I approach this job from a religious perspective and hope God will reward me for this," he said.
Under Islamic rules, those who die a natural death are usually washed before burial, while those killed in a holy war are buried as they are, even if bloody, reflecting the idea that they are already pure enough to return to God.
"I specialize in martyrs," Jadallah said.
Jadallah's job is to wrap them in the customary white burial shrouds, secure the shrouds with strips of cloth according to specific rules and wash their faces.
On Thursday, the morgue's refrigerators held eight bodies of those killed in Israeli airstrikes overnight. Among the dead were five members of the Abu Aita family from the Jebaliya refugee camp — Ibrahim, 66; his wife, Jamila, 55; sons Ahmed, 31, and Mohammed, 40; and Ahmed's son Adham, 4.
Their neighbors, the Ajramis, said they had received a warning from the Israeli military early Thursday that their four-story home would be targeted in an airstrike, and they fled with minutes to spare, but word didn't reach the Abu Aitas in time. The missile badly damaged the Ajrami home, and the debris killed five of the Abu Aitas.
After daybreak, relatives of those killed began arriving at the morgue, a small space that barely accommodates Jadallah's work table and three refrigerators for storing the bodies.
One woman whose husband had been killed in a different airstrike shouted hysterically in the waiting area, fighting with relatives trying to stop her from seeing his body. They eventually gave in, but she fainted after Jadallah let her look inside the refrigerator.
Two Hamas policemen manned the iron door to the morgue, trying to keep down the number of people getting inside so Jadallah could work.
As he pulled a body from a refrigerator and placed it on a large metal tray on the table, one of the policemen called out the name of the dead and asked the closest relatives to come in.
After the initial wailing and chaos, calm usually descended on the room as mourners watched Jadallah work.
He ripped narrow strips of white cloth that he draped like belts around each body to secure the burial shroud. Depending on the size of the body, he uses three or five such belts; it has to be an odd number.
Jadallah bandaged the heads of those who had suffered grave skull injuries and used water-soaked bandages to wipe soot and blood off the faces. He lifted the heavy trays and pushed the table himself, despite his age.
Once a body was prepared, relatives were called into the morgue and carried out the dead on an orange stretcher. Some chanted "takbir," praising God as the Almighty, usually followed by the response "Allahu akbar," or God is great, as they left with the body.
Jadallah, a father of six, said he shares the pain of those around him, even if he doesn't betray emotion while working. After handling so many of the dead over the years, he said he finds it hard to forgive Israel, let along consider the possibility of a peace agreement.
Israel has said it is striking Hamas targets in Gaza to harm the militant group's ability launch attacks at Israel, whether by firing rockets or sending infiltrators through tunnels.
Jadallah said conditions in Gaza, home to 1.7 million people, have steadily deteriorated since he was a boy, mainly because of overcrowding and the 7-year-old border blockade by Egypt and Israel.
"Spilling blood is not something small," he said. "But the war was imposed on us. Even if they (the Israelis) kill dozens, we don't care. We will get back our homeland."
Associated Press writer Yousur Alhlou in Jerusalem contributed to this report.