JEBALIYA CAMP, Gaza Strip — The airstrike that crushed the Najam family home in this refugee camp set in motion a grim but increasingly familiar process as the Gaza war claims victim after victim. A search through the rubble for bodies and body parts. Relatives claiming the dead from the morgue. Then a swift burial in a hastily dug grave with a cardboard name tag instead of a tombstone.
With such tragedies becoming routine, most Palestinians are responding with a measure of sobriety to the violent deaths that are now part of daily life in Gaza. Some suppress their grief behind a faith that the dead are martyrs in the fight against Israel and destined to go to heaven. Others are just too preoccupied with their own survival to mourn.
“What happened to them could happen to us,” Youssef al-Doqs, a 22-year-old neighbor of the Najams, said Monday as he watched six stone-faced men silently searching through a mound of debris that was their two-story home in the Jebaliya refugee camp. “As for me, Youssef, I am not afraid of death,” he said, sucking on a cigarette.
Late Monday morning in Shati, a different refugee camp in Gaza City, an Israeli warplane struck a house that stood on a narrow lane. Children, some as young as 8 or 9, helped rescue workers searching the rubble for bodies and survivors by forming a human chain between the targeted house and a main street. They passed to one another bits of debris, which the last member of the chain on the street end dropped onto a growing heap.
Nearly 1,900 Palestinians have died since Israel launched a campaign of airstrikes against Hamas-ruled Gaza on July 8 in response to weeks of rocket attacks into Israel by Hamas and other Gaza militants. More than 60 Israelis, mostly soldiers, have been killed in the war.
While the Palestinian militant groups openly aim their rockets and mortar shells at Israeli cities hoping to harm civilians, Israel says it is strictly targeting launch sites as well as militants who often embed themselves among Palestinian civilians. Israel also has said it is doing its utmost to avoid harm to civilians, urging them in phone calls, leaflets and text messages to leave areas about to be attacked.
Nevertheless, most of the Palestinians killed have been civilians – and they include some 400 children.
Israel has not explained the airstrike Sunday night that killed seven members of the Najam family, including a 90-year-old man and at least two children. It was the latest in what the U.N. says have been dozens of Israeli attacks that killed three or more members of one family in a single strike, with several cases of more than a dozen members wiped out.
On Sunday night, ambulances brought the bodies of the seven dead Najams to the morgue of the Kamal Adwan hospital in Beit Lahiya near the Jebaliya camp.
The next morning, surviving family members, relatives and friends sat patiently alongside others waiting to claim the bodies for burial.
A health ministry official kept them waiting while he showed the bodies to journalists, part of Hamas’ propaganda war with Israel. For the cameramen, he removed the part of the white shroud covering the faces of the bodies and rearranged the severed limbs of one victim.
Angry and impatient, the waiting family and friends began to bang on the metal door separating them from the courtyard leading to the morgue. The official tried to calm them, saying that it was important for the world to see what Israel is doing to the Palestinians.
The first four bodies out of the morgue were not those of the Najams, but of two cousins and two children killed Sunday by a rocket fired from a drone. They were unceremoniously loaded into the back of an ambulance that sped away.
The main cemetery for Gaza City and northern Gaza is located east of Jebaliya, which has taken heavy Israeli shelling. And because that cemetery is running out of room, authorities will now allow burials in spaces between existing graves as well as similar burials in smaller, older cemeteries elsewhere.
“Going to cemeteries for burials is dangerous now,” said Moufeed Kafarnah, a policeman, as he waited for the bodies of the Najams to be brought out of the morgue. “Only a maximum of 10 mourners go to burials now,” he said, with two of his children – Malak, 5, and Deema, 4, sitting next to him on the sidewalk.
Minutes later, the bodies of the Najams were brought out, wrapped in blood-stained white shrouds and carried on metal sheets with puddles of blood on both ends. With chants ringing out of “Allahu Akbar,” or “God is great,” the bodies were loaded onto the back of a truck.
Mourners and onlookers jumped onto the truck next to them. More passengers joined as the truck slowly made its way to a mosque, where a special prayer for the dead was recited, and later to the cemetery at Beit Lahiya. Throughout the journey, families emerged from homes along the road to look at the procession, many with blank faces.
Inside the mosque, children used a ladder to reach and rip off green flags bearing the declaration of the Muslim faith – There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet – that hung from a rope strung across the length of the roof. They used those flags to wrap the seven bodies.
Later, young men laid the bodies down in hurriedly dug graves in a sandy extension of the cemetery. They covered the graves with slabs of concrete bearing the fading blue emblem of the U.N. agency that looks after Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.
And with sand heaped with shovels on top of the concrete slabs, the seven Najams became a memory to family and friends, just like others whose fresh graves dot the new cemetery extension, with mortar bricks used as markers and their names written on pieces of cardboard inserted inside them.
“What can we do if that is what is written for us?” Oday Mohammed Salman solemnly said while squatting on one of the mortar bricks and looking at three graves – not of the Najams – with fresh flowers strewn over their wet sandy surface.
Salman, 17, was a childhood friend of two of those buried there – killed, he said, by a rocket fired from a “zananah,” the Arabic name Gazans have given to drones. He said the three pals attended calligraphy classes together at al-Tiybah, a Hamas-run mosque.
“When I am older,” declared Salman, “I will join the mujahideen.”