Satellite images show Israeli forces desecrated at least 16 cemeteries in Gaza

(CNN) — A CNN investigation has found that Israeli forces have desecrated at least 16 cemeteries in their ground offensive in Gaza, leaving ruined graves, disturbed earth and, in some cases, dug up bodies.

In Khan Yunis in southern Gaza, where fighting intensified earlier this week, Israeli forces destroyed a cemetery and removed bodies, Israeli Defense Forces told CNN during the October 7 terrorist attacks. It was part of a search for the remains of hostages kidnapped by Hamas.

CNN examined satellite images and social media images showing the destruction of cemeteries and witnessed it firsthand while traveling with the IDF in a convoy. Overall, the evidence reveals a systematic exercise in which Israeli ground forces have advanced throughout Gaza.

Traces left by Israeli armored vehicles destroying a cemetery near Al Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on 17 January.  (Credit: Jihad Alsharafi/Anadolu/Getty Images)

Traces left by Israeli armored vehicles destroying a cemetery near Al Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, Gaza, on 17 January. (Credit: Jihad Alsharafi/Anadolu/Getty Images)

Deliberate destruction of religious sites, such as cemeteries, is a violation of international law except in very limited circumstances involving becoming military targets, and legal experts told CNN that Israel’s actions could constitute war crimes.

An IDF spokesperson could not explain the destruction of the 16 cemeteries for which CNN provided coordinates, but said the army sometimes has “no choice” but to attack cemeteries, claiming that Hamas uses for military purposes.

The IDF said that rescuing hostages and finding and returning their bodies is one of its key missions in Gaza, which is why bodies have been removed from some graves.

“The hostage identification process, conducted in a secure and alternative location, ensures optimal professional conditions and respect for the deceased,” an IDF spokesperson told CNN. He said the bodies of those not considered hostages are “returned with dignity and respect.” ,

But in other cases, the Israeli military appears to have used cemeteries as military posts. CNN’s analysis of satellite images and video showed that Israeli bulldozers turned many cemeteries into locations, largely leveling the land and erecting berms to strengthen their positions.

In the Shajaiya neighborhood of Gaza City, where the cemetery used to be, Israeli military vehicles could be seen with bushes surrounding them. Local media reported that the central part of the Shajaiya cemetery had been cleared before the war. But satellite images showed that other parts had recently been demolished, and the IDF presence was visible as early as 10 December.

On 18 December, the IDF released an undated photo of a Hamas rocket launcher on the grounds of the Shajaiya cemetery. CNN could not independently confirm when and where the photo was taken.

A similar scene of destruction was visible at the Bani Suhaila cemetery in eastern Khan Yunis, where satellite images showed the deliberate and progressive demolition of the cemetery and defensive fortifications over the course of at least two weeks in late December and early January. The construction was revealed.

Destroyed tombstones and heavy footprints in the Al Fallouja cemetery, in the Jabalya neighborhood north of Gaza City, in the Al-Tafa cemetery east of Gaza City, and in a cemetery in the Sheikh Ijlin neighborhood of Gaza City indicate that armored vehicles Or tanks passed over graves.

Last week, an armored vehicle carrying a CNN crew drove straight through the New Burijs cemetery in al-Burijs, a Palestinian refugee camp in central Gaza, on its way out of the enclave. Graves were visible on both sides of the newly dug dirt road, as seen on a screen inside the vehicle showing a live image from its front camera. CNN confirmed the cemetery’s location by geolocating images of Gaza from that day and comparing them with images obtained by satellite.

Satellite images showed little sign of destruction or military fortification at other cemeteries analyzed by CNN, including two cemeteries where fallen soldiers from the First and Second World Wars, including Christians and some Jews, are buried.

The IDF spokesperson did not explain why large areas of cemeteries were destroyed to create a military outpost or why military vehicles were parked where graves previously were. “We have a serious responsibility to respect the dead and have no policy to set up military posts in cemeteries,” the spokesperson told CNN.

According to satellite images and video reviewed and geolocated by CNN, Israeli forces seriously damaged the Khan Younis cemetery between Monday night and Wednesday morning, as they attacked the Al Nasser hospital complex and the area around the Jordanian field hospital. Were moving ahead.

The IDF told CNN that when it receives “significant intelligence or operational information”, it “conducts precision hostage rescue operations at specific locations where the information indicates that the bodies of hostages can be found.”

Israel has said that 253 people were taken hostage during Hamas terrorist attacks on 7 October and that it believes 132 hostages remain in Gaza, of whom 105 are alive and 27 are dead.

“I couldn’t find his grave.”

Munthar Al Hayek’s daughter Dina died in the 2014 Gaza war. In early January he visited Dina’s grave in the Sheikh Radwan cemetery in Gaza City, but she was not there. He tried to find his grandmother’s grave. He wasn’t even there.

“The occupation forces destroyed them,” Hayek, a spokesman for the Palestinian opposition group Fatah in Gaza, told CNN. “The scenes are horrific. We want the world to intervene to protect Palestinian civilians.”

Gazan poet Mosab Abu Toha, whose work has been published in the New York Times and The New Yorker, also learned that the cemetery where his younger brother and grandfather are buried had been severely damaged by Israeli forces.

Now safe in Cairo, Abu Toha told CNN how on December 26 his brother called him from the Beit Lahiya cemetery in northern Gaza, searching for his loved ones and being unable to find them.

In a recording of their video call, seen by CNN, debris covers the land where the cemetery once stood. Tracks of heavy military vehicles cross the cemetery in satellite images.

The death toll in Gaza is increasing day by day. More than 24,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli strikes, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza health ministry. In accordance with Islamic practice, burials are usually hasty, and, since the war began, the dead are often buried in mass graves.

In late December, Israel returned the bodies of 80 Palestinians killed in the war and said it had confirmed that they were not Israeli hostages held by Hamas. Palestinian media then claimed that the returned bodies could not be identified. CNN cannot independently verify those claims.

respect for the dead

Experts in international law confirm that desecration of cemeteries is a violation of the Rome Statute, a 1998 treaty that establishes the International Criminal Court (ICC) to judge war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and crimes of aggression. Creates and operates the ICC). Israel, which initially supported the creation of the court, did not ratify the Rome Statute.

Cemeteries are protected as “civilian property” under international law and receive special protection with limited exceptions.

Cemeteries may be attacked or destroyed only if they are used for military purposes by the other belligerent party, or if doing so is considered a military necessity, and the military benefit obtained would be detrimental to civilian property. is greater than the loss.

“The civil nature of the cemetery remains intact to some extent. Therefore, anyone who wishes to attack a cemetery must take into account the type of civil use of the graves and the civic importance of the cemetery, and minimize damage to the civil function of the cemetery. ” Janina Dill, co-director of the Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict at the University of Oxford, told CNN.

In response to CNN's request for comment on the damage done to the Khan Younis graves, the IDF said it was exhuming bodies in Gaza as part of the search for the remains of hostages abducted by Hamas.  (Credit: Jihad Alsharafi/Anadolu/Getty Images)

In response to CNN’s request for comment on the damage done to the Khan Younis graves, the IDF said it was exhuming bodies in Gaza as part of the search for the remains of hostages abducted by Hamas.
(Credit: Jihad Alsharafi/Anadolu/Getty Images)

South Africa raised the destruction of cemeteries by the IDF in Gaza as part of its case before the International Court of Justice and alleged that Israel is committing genocide. Israel has denied the charge, but Dill said the destruction of cemeteries alone does not amount to genocide, but could add evidence of Israel’s intent.

“The notion that even the dead are not left alone has huge symbolic meaning,” Dill said. “International humanitarian law protects the dignity of people outside of war, and this protection does not end when they die.”

But, in at least two cases, it is clear that measures have been taken to honor the dead in cemeteries where Palestinians are not buried.

Just 800 meters from the destroyed al-Tufa cemetery east of Gaza City, a cemetery containing the bodies of mostly British and Australian soldiers who died in the First and Second World Wars remains virtually intact. Satellite images taken between 8 and 15 October show a crater in the cemetery, but are otherwise unaffected by the war.

The second cemetery operated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in central Gaza offers an even more stark example. There are destroyed vehicles and destroyed roads around the cemetery. But the cemetery, which contains the graves of World War I soldiers, mostly Christians and some Jews, remains intact.

Israeli soldiers also posed with an Israeli flag next to the grave of a Jewish soldier buried there, and another photo posted on social media showed a tank at the edge of the cemetery, respecting the sanctity of that holy land .

Muna Haddad, a human rights lawyer and researcher on the treatment of the dead, told CNN that honoring some dead, but not others, violates international law.

“What is happening is a clear violation of these basic norms and is considered a war crime under the Rome Statute for ‘insults against personal dignity,'” he said.

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