Searching for the dead as mass graves exhumed in Gaza: 'We are all mothers here searching for our children'

People in Gaza flock to Nasser Hospital grounds in hope of finding loved ones.

April 25, 2024, 3:56 AM

LONDON and GAZA -- In a desperate search for missing loved ones, Gazans have been gathering in the hundreds at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, in southern Gaza, where emergency workers are on the fifth day of exhuming bodies from mass graves found on the hospital grounds.

"The hospital smells of rotting corpses. I cannot stand here for long," Ahlam Salama, a 43-year-old mother who went to the hospital to find her son, told ABC News.

"We are all mothers here searching for our children," she said, holding back tears and pointing to the other women who had gathered at the hospital.

PHOTO: The Palestinian Civil Defense recovers 50 bodies from a mass grave at the Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, Gaza Apr. 21, 2024.
The Palestinian Civil Defense recovers 50 bodies from a mass grave at the Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, Gaza Apr. 21, 2024.
Haitham Imad/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Salama is among the hundreds of people who have assembled at Nasser Hospital, hoping for news about missing family and friends.

The Hamas-run Civil Defense Service gave a press conference Thursday saying it had recovered 392 bodies from the hospital grounds and had identified three mass grave sites. Officials said they have so far only been able to identify 42% of the bodies.

ABC News has been unable to independently verify these claims, so little is known for certain at this point about the reports of mass graves, including what happened, when it happened and who may be responsible. White House National Security Communications Advisor John Kirby said Tuesday that the reports are "deeply concerning," but that the White House is not in a place to validate them.

When asked, Kirby further said he "wouldn't expect a U.S. investigation" into the reports of mass graves and the alleged involvement of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), but added that the White House will speak with their Israeli counterparts about what they know.

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan on Wednesday called the reports of mass graves in Gaza "deeply disturbing," and said that the U.S. has been in touch with the Israeli government on the matter, at multiple levels.

"We want answers. We want to understand exactly what happened. You've seen some public commentary from the IDF on that, but we want to know the specifics of what the circumstances on this were, and we want to see this thoroughly and transparently investigated so that the whole world can have a comprehensive answer and we the United States can have as well," Sullivan said, adding that he could not comment beyond that.

During Thursday's press conference, the Civil Defense said "there are indications of suspicions of carrying out field executions against some of them, or suspicions of physical torture being practiced, and other suspicions of burying a number of them alive."

"We appeal to the secretary-general of the United Nations and international institutions to form an independent international investigation committee to investigate crimes of genocide," a Civil Defense spokesperson said. "We are ready to participate in any impartial or human rights international committees to prove crimes against humanity."

The Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a strong statement Wednesday, denying that it was in any way responsible for the mass graves.

"Any attempt to blame Israel for burying civilians in mass graves is categorically false and a mere example of a disinformation campaign aimed at delegitimizing Israel," the statement said. "Misinformation is circulating regarding a mass grave that was discovered at Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis [sic]. The grave in question was dug — by Gazans — a few months ago."

The IDF withdrew from Khan Younis in early April. Since then, people have been returning to the area to search for the bodies of loved ones, hoping to give them a proper burial. During the fighting in and around the Nasser Hospital complex, which occurred in January and February, social media videos from the time appeared to show that bodies were immediately buried on the hospital grounds, since it was unsafe to take them to cemeteries during the conflict.

"I am here for the third day looking for my son among these bodies buried in the sand, a scene that makes hearts cry," Salama told ABC News, explaining that her 25-year-old son, Saleh, has been missing since January.

"From that time until now, I know nothing about him, but many told me that he might have been killed by army bullets," she said.

"I told the Civil Defense that I have a son here who is missing. Perhaps they will find him," Salma added, lamenting that she cannot remember what her son was wearing to help identify his body.

"He wears a ring on his finger with a letter on it," Salama explained. "Perhaps I will find him and bury him so that I can know his grave and visit him always."

"I saw the ugliest pictures as if I were in a nightmare. I cannot believe that dozens here have been buried for months and no one knows anything about them and no one tried to save them," Salama said. "I constantly lose consciousness while watching the bodies emerging from the ground. The men here do not stop searching for the dead in the sand."

PHOTO: The Palestinian Civil Defense recovers 50 bodies from a mass grave at the Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, Gaza Apr. 21, 2024.
The Palestinian Civil Defense recovers 50 bodies from a mass grave at the Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis, Gaza Apr. 21, 2024.
Haitham Imad/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The IDF stormed Nasser Hospital at the end of February, telling ABC News in a statement Tuesday that "IDF forces conducted a precise and targeted operation against the terrorist organization Hamas in the Nasser Hospital area."

However, Hamas is accusing the IDF of war crimes, saying that some of the exhumed corpses show signs of execution.

"The Israeli army soldiers stripped dozens of patients, displaced persons, and medical personnel naked before executing them in cold blood by firing squad," Ismail Al-Thawabta, director of the Hamas government's media office, said in a statement released Sunday.

Hamas also called for the International Criminal Court to investigate the IDF's alleged actions. "We call on the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to investigate this massacre committed by the occupation army in the Nasser Complex and also the Shifa Complex, in all its details, whether against the headquarters of the two complexes or against the citizens, displaced, and the medical and journalistic personnel inside them," the militant group said in a statement released Sunday.

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk has said he is "horrified by the destruction of Al Nasser Medical Complex and Al Shifa Medical Complex and the reported discovery of mass graves in and around these locations," his spokesperson, Ravina Shamdasani, told reporters Tuesday.

"He calls for independent, effective, and transparent investigations into the deaths," Shamdasani said.

The U.N. said it has not been able to independently verify the claims being made about the bodies with their hands tied or handcuffed, but called for an international investigation.

"Given the prevailing climate of impunity, this should include international investigators. Hospitals themselves are entitled to very special protection under international humanitarian law. And the intentional killing of civilians, detainees, and others who are hors de combat is a war crime," Shamdasani added.

Similarly, the European Union on Wednesday backed the U.N. call for an independent investigation.

"This is something that forces us to call for an independent investigation of all the suspicions and all the circumstances because indeed it creates the impression that there might have been violations of international human rights committed," EU spokesman Peter Stano said. "That's why it's important to have independent investigation and to ensure accountability."

After intense fighting at both complexes, the IDF largely destroyed both the Al-Shifa and Nasser hospitals, two of Gaza's most important medical centers. The IDF maintains Hamas fighters were using the hospitals as command centers and shelters, something medical personnel at both hospitals have denied.

"Some of the bodies were found to be women, elderly, and also wounded, while some were handcuffed and stripped of their clothes, indicating that they were executed with cold blood," Hamas said in its statement.

The Israeli military refuted these claims in the statement given to ABC News, declaring, "The claim that the IDF buried Palestinian bodies is baseless and unfounded," and asserting that it had exhumed bodies while looking for Israeli hostages.

It's been more than six months since Hamas militants entered Israel in a surprise terror attack on Oct. 7, killing over 1,200 people and abducting some 250 hostages, according to Israeli officials. Israel responded with a retaliatory attack against Hamas and has been operating in Gaza since, searching for the estimated 100 remaining hostages. At least 34,000 people have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, which says the majority of which were women and children.

The IDF consistently maintains it is acting within the parameters of international law.

"During the IDF's operation in the area of Nasser Hospital, in accordance to the effort to locate hostages and missing persons, corpses buried by Palestinians in the area of Nasser Hospital were examined," the Israeli military statement said.

"The examination was conducted in a careful manner and exclusively in places where intelligence indicated the possible presence of hostages. The examination was carried out respectfully while maintaining the dignity of the deceased. Bodies examined, which did not belong to Israeli hostages, were returned to their place," the statement further said.

PHOTO: Medics walk in front of the emergency ward at Nasser Hospital where bodies were discovered, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on April 23, 2024.
Medics walk in front of the emergency ward at Nasser Hospital where bodies were discovered, in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on April 23, 2024.
AFP via Getty Images

ABC News spoke to a grandmother who had been waiting at Nasser Hospital for hours, hoping to hear news of her grandson.

"Since the morning hours, while I have been here, I have not stopped searching with my eyes for my grandson, Salem, the beautiful young man of 20 years old," Raeda Subeih, 60, from Khan Younis, told ABC News.

Subeih said she had been sheltering at the hospital with her family when the Israeli army called on everyone to evacuate. She left, but her grandson stayed, saying he wanted to look after an injured friend.

"His friend told us that the army had arrested many young men in the hospital, including Salem, when he went out in the hospital yard. Since that time, we have not spoken to him. When the army withdrew, I came here to look for him," Subeih said.

Subeih said she had been watching the bodies being exhumed from the ground. "Many bodies were handcuffed. I was looking at them to see if I might find my grandson," she said. "Many skulls here, decomposing bodies. Here, everyone talks about the tragedy we saw."

ABC News' Noah Minnie and Molly Nagle contributed to this report.