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Gaza’s Shadow Death Toll: Bodies Buried Beneath the Rubble

WorldMiddle EastGaza’s Shadow Death Toll: Bodies Buried Beneath the Rubble

A curly-haired young man shakes as he bends over the mound of smashed concrete that used to be his friend’s home. He clutches his rain-spotted iPhone in his trembling hands, but there is no answer. “Please God, Ahmed,” he sobs in a video posted on social media. “Please God.”

A father crawls over a mountain of gray concrete shards, his right ear pressed to the dust. “I can’t hear you, love,” he tells his absent children in a different video shared on Instagram and verified by The New York Times. He scrabbles over a few yards to try again. “Salma! Said!” he yells, hitting his dusty hammer against the mute concrete over and over, before breaking down. “Said,” he cries, “didn’t I tell you to take care of your sister?”

Another man on another rubble heap is looking for his wife and his children, Rahaf, 6, and Aboud, 4. “Rahaf,” he cries, leaning forward to scan the twisted pile of gray before him. “What has she done to deserve this?”

Gaza has become a 140-square-mile graveyard, each destroyed building another jagged tomb for those still buried within.

The most recent health ministry estimate for the number of people missing in Gaza is about 7,000. But that figure has not been updated since November. Gaza and aid officials say thousands more have most likely been added to that toll in the weeks and months since then.

Some were buried too hastily to be counted. Others lie decomposing in the open, in places too dangerous to be reached, or have simply disappeared amid the fighting, the chaos and ongoing Israeli detentions.

The rest, in all likelihood, remain trapped under the rubble.

The piles of debris have been multiplying ever since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, killing about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. Israel launched its retaliatory war, and the number of search-and-rescue operations — both professional and, increasingly, amateur — also soared.

After airstrikes, a small crowd of would-be rescuers gathers. In Instagram videos like the ones described above, the searchers — a mix of professional civil defense workers, family members and neighbors — can be seen clambering over and onto the dusty wreckage of homes and buildings to dig.

But hopes dwindle quickly. The people they are looking for are usually found dead beneath the wreckage — days, weeks or even months later.

The buried make up a shadow death toll in Gaza, a leaden asterisk to the health ministry’s official tally of more than 31,000 dead, and an open wound for families who hope against hope for a miracle.

Most families have accepted that their missing are dead, and it is unclear how much of the estimate of those unaccounted for is already reflected in the official death toll. The continuing shelling, crossfire and airstrikes often make it too dangerous to sift through the wreckage for the bodies. Other times, relatives are too far away to do so, having separated from the rest of their families in the search for somewhere safer to go.

Photographs that have emerged of Gaza’s rubble heaps testify to families’ intention to recover the dead someday: “Omar Al Riyati and Osama Badawi are under the rubble,” reads the spray paint on a tarp draped across the door of one blown-out building.

“Forty days my family has been under the rubble, and we can’t reach them,” Salem Qassem said in November. He had fled Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza for nearby Jabalia early in the war, four days before he heard that his father was dead.

He rushed back to Beit Hanoun as soon as he could, he said, to find his father’s three-story house had been reduced to rubble. The people who had been there — his father, his father’s wife, his sisters and his brother — were nowhere to be found.

He tried to dig, he said, but fled when the neighborhood came under renewed attack. Now, even if he could get past the Israeli military still operating in the area, he said, “I won’t find bodies. I’ll find ashes.”

When a multistory building collapses, it is impossible to comb the hill of debris without heavy machines or fuel to power them. Often, neither is available.

Gaza has been under a debilitating blockade jointly enforced by Israel and Egypt since Hamas took control of the strip in 2007, and the types of equipment typically used to rescue people after earthquakes and other events of mass destruction are largely forbidden from entering the territory.

Across all of Gaza, Ahmed Abu Shehab, a civil defense worker in the territory, is aware of only two excavators available for the task. Without them, rescuers rely on shovels, drills and their own hands: a grimly monotonous mission, undertaken mostly by men running on anger and grief but little food, water or rest.

Last fall, Mr. Abu Shehab said he was part of a team that used bulldozers and an excavator to pull dozens of people from the ruins of a three-story house — a lengthy job, given the size of the building. It took 48 hours to reach the people inside. By then, all of them had died, he said.

In late October, when an airstrike brought down a multistory building in Al Nuseirat, there was so much wreckage that a bulldozer first had to come and clear the road, said Ahmed Ismael, 30. The two families in the building next door were not spared: More than a dozen people died there, including several children, said Mr. Ismael, a nurse whose cousin’s family was among the dead.

The extended family had sought refuge there after leaving their own home in Sheikh Radwan, in Gaza City, early in the war, Mr. Ismael said. They had chosen to split up between several locations, so that if a group sheltering in one place was killed, the others might survive.

That was what happened. Searchers had managed to pull some bodies from the second floor by digging with their hands, but Mr. Ismael said his cousin, Salwa, one of her sons and her brother, Mahmoud, were still buried. So were five members of the family hosting them.

The bulldozer was no help. The buildings had been too massive, and after clearing the road, the driver told the diggers that he did not have enough fuel in any case, Mr. Ismael said.

Calling 101, the Gaza equivalent of 911, is of little use: Communications networks are weak, erratic or nonfunctional. Instead, many people have taken to braving the heavy fighting and rubble-choked streets to request help in person at civil defense headquarters.

Even if they do get through, the lack of fuel, along with continuing attacks, means ambulances and rescue workers are hard-pressed to move around Gaza to answer their pleas.

Since mid-November, after the Israeli military occupied most of northern Gaza and Gaza City, Palestinian Red Crescent Society teams have been unable to enter that part of the strip freely, said Nebal Fesakh, a spokeswoman for the group. There is nothing they can do to respond to desperate calls on the 101 line from people trapped there, or to treat the wounded, to take away a body, to dig for the missing.

“Unfortunately, we just felt helpless because we were completely denied access to those areas,” Ms. Fesakh said. “Thousands of people are still stuck under the rubble, and now they’ve most probably died because it’s been so long.”

Nevin Almadhoun, 40, was on the other end of Gaza, in a school turned shelter in the southern city of Rafah, when she was told that an Israeli airstrike had hit the building where her brother, Majed, and his family had been staying in the north.

She felt an impulse to get up and go back, to help dig for them with her bare hands. But there was no way to get around the Israeli forces that had cut off the northern part of the strip from the south.

Other relatives went to the site and began heaving the stones and shards of concrete away by hand, she said. She begged them to try to find at least one person alive. Anyone.

They said there was no hope, Ms. Almadhoun recalled. Majed and his family had been staying in the basement. The entire building had fallen in on them.

After days of searching, the diggers managed to recover them, one by one: her brother, his wife, two sons and two daughters.

It took longest to find Siwar, 14, a high school basketball player who hoped to become a trainer. Her uncle, who was among the searchers, said he dreamed one night that Siwar was calling him from a particular spot. He found her body there the next morning.

“When I heard that they were killed, I started to cry, to shout, but no one can hear you — you’re alone in a strange place,” Ms. Almadhoun said. “But when they told me they got them out, I took some comfort. Because lots of people are not.”

All of them were buried in the family plot in Beit Lahia. After she returns to northern Gaza, Ms. Almadhoun said, “we want to visit their graves, to find a place to cry for them.”

She does not know when that will be.

Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo.

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