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Palestinians in Gaza search for missing family members

Tania Krämer in Jerusalem
June 17, 2024

Thousands of missing Palestinians are believed to be buried under the rubble of destroyed buildings or detained by Israeli forces.

A man stands in the doorway of a bombed-out building looking out at destroyed apartments in Gaza
Organizations are unsure just how many missing persons are buried beneath the rubble in the beleaguered Gaza Strip, but the Red Cross suspects it is in the thousands.Image: Omar Naaman/dpa/picture alliance

Muhammad Anza from Rafah, a city near the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt, has been searching for weeks for his uncle, Ibrahim Al-Shaer, who disappeared at the beginning of May. 

"Since that day, he has never returned, and we haven't heard from him," Anza, 19, told DW from Gaza via phone. "We are in a state of great concern. We want to know where he is, we want to know if he is dead, so we can bury him and have mercy on him, or whether he was detained [by the Israeli military]."

When Israel's military launched an offensive in eastern Rafah on May 6 to root out Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that led the October 7 terror attacks in southern Israel, Al-Shaer and his family were ordered to leave their home in the area. Anza said his uncle tried to go back a few days later to check on their house and retrieve some items the family hadn't had time to take with them during the bombing.

Blinken: Palestinian civilians in Gaza 'not numbers'

The family, Anza said, had searched hospitals and asked neighbors who had returned around the same time to check on their houses. There were bombings and air strikes nearby, but those killed were named by emergency services.

"We have contacted the police, the Red Cross and the local committees, but we don't know where he is, and nobody knows anything," Anza said.

The family, like many others, has now posted a photo and a description of the circumstances of Al-Shaer's disappearance on social media, not knowing where else to turn.

Thousands of unidentified bodies and missing persons 

With the war between Israel and Hamas, which runs Gaza, in its ninth month, thousands of people appear to be missing in the Palestinian enclave. Many have disappeared under the rubble after airstrikes. Entire blocks of flats and houses have been destroyed by bombardments, burying residents under the rubble. Rescue services are not always able to reach areas due to the fighting, or to dig out bodies due to a lack of equipment.

Others are believed to have been stopped at Israeli checkpoints while trying to return to northern Gaza or flee south. 

While the exact number of missing people is unknown, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has recorded 6,500 missing persons cases in Gaza since the start of the conflict. 

"Since October 7, we have opened hotlines for people to call us if they have relatives that are missing for any reason, such as an allegation of detention or arrest, if they were separated during evacuations, or if they might have been wounded or killed," said Sarah Davies, the ICRC's communications officer in Jerusalem.

Even the bodies that are retrieved and brought to Gaza's morgues are not always easily identified. As of June 10, 9,839 bodies are lying in morgues unidentified, according to Gaza's Health Ministry, while 27,325 others have been identified.

More than 37,000 Palestinians have died so far in the latest Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, the ministry further reported. The numbers do not distinguish between combatants and civilians. Meanwhile, according to the Israeli Defense Forces, at least 650 soldiers have been killed since the October 7 attack, 298 of whom died during the ground operation in Gaza that began at the end of October 2023.

Davies said finding the missing is extremely challenging due to the situation in Gaza.

"While we have extensive experience in tracing in war zones, at the moment, active tracing is impossible," she said.

The Red Cross usually does active tracing, which involves going around and knocking on people's doors to ask questions. But right now in Gaza, "people don't have doors to begin with," Davies said, "and they are constantly being moved around and displaced again." 

Lost phones and shaky communication

Shaky communication lines and lost phones sometimes make it even harder to reach people. The ICRC has five hotline operators in Gaza who take basic information from people looking for their loved ones, such as where they were last seen. A tracing specialist then calls families back and tries to put together a dossier.

Palestinians living in Gaza stand among the remains of a tent camp
Many families have been displaced multiple times as they flee from attacks by Israel's armed forcesImage: Doaa Albaz/Anadolu/picture alliance

"The hotline operators are hearing stories of families, and it's so heartbreaking," Davies said. "Some [people] have lost multiple family members or been separated from multiple members of the same family. And you don't know whether that was because they are under rubble, or because they lost their phone or their SIM card, and that's why their family can't contact them, or they're just in an area with no connection and no internet, but they're okay."

The names of the missing are cross-checked with lists of the few hospitals that are still working or with the lists of detainees released back into Gaza by Israel. 

Since October 7, Israel has arrested thousands of Palestinians in Gaza and brought them to detention centers in Israel for alleged connections with militant organizations.

Israel detains suspected militants

Many Palestinians are detained under the Unlawful Combatants Law, which allows the Israeli military to arrest suspected militants and hold them for extended periods without trial or legal representation and without the protections afforded to prisoners of war. For many, the accusations turn out to not be true, and these people are sent back to Gaza at some point. However, Israeli human rights organizations have reported abuse and severe violence toward detainees at the Sde Teiman detention center in central Israel.

"There is no one to ask. Many of our tracing requests are from families who don't even know if their loved one was detained, or has been killed or is otherwise unaccounted for," said Jessica Montell, executive director at HaMoked, an Israeli human rights organization, adding that Israel "refuses to trace people missing from Gaza, contrary to prior practice and its legal obligations." 

DW approached the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) with a query regarding the allegations that it is detaining people in Gaza without informing their families, but had not yet received a reply at the time of publishing.

Mohammed Al-Madhoun is looking for his brother Khalil, a 47-year-old former employee of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza who was displaced from northern Gaza to Khan Younis with their widowed sister at the start of the war.

"My brother's wife and three children remained in northern Gaza. He missed them very much and tried several times to return to the north, even though he knew it was dangerous," Al-Madhoun said. "On May 18, I did not find him in his tent next to mine." 

Khalil's mobile phone has since been switched off, and searches at hospitals and through the Red Cross have yielded no information. The family also turned to social media, but apart from a reported sighting in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, there has been no further trace of Khalil.

Al-Madhoun suspects that his brother tried to cross back into northern Gaza and was either arrested by the Israeli military at a checkpoint or killed under unknown circumstances.

"We are in a constant state of confusion, we do not know his fate, and no one has an answer. We just hope he is alive," said Al-Madhoun.

The most painful part in conflict zones around the world is the uncertainty over the fate of loved ones, said Sarah Davies. 

"It's not losing your house or not being able to eat or not knowing where you get water from," she said. "It's being separated from your family members without knowing what happened to them. Maybe they're alive, and you have hope of that, but you also think of the worst-case scenarios. There is no closure."

Hazem Balousha contributed reporting from Cairo.

Edited by: Carla Bleiker and Davis VanOpdorp.