Amid so much death, Israelis struggle to lay their loved ones to rest

ASHKELON, Israel — As the death toll in southern Israel kept rising, Eli Yifrah ordered two refrigerated shipping containers to hold all the unclaimed bodies awaiting burial at Ashkelon’s main cemetery.

At least 900 people have been killed, the Israeli military said Monday. But Yifrah, who runs the cemetery, said he’s held only four funerals. Most families, he explained, have been unable to bury their dead.

“The problem is the identification process,” he said. He held up his phone to show how many people have called him since Saturday asking if he knows anything about their missing loved ones. “I get all these calls and I don’t have any information to answer them.”

On the cemetery’s edges, Yifrah is digging a dozen additional graves. He expects he will have to dig more.

The attack by Palestinian militants that began Saturday morning and lasted for more than 48 hours in some places has overwhelmed hospitals, morgues and the country’s security forces. The Israel Defense Forces announced Monday afternoon that all communities overrun by Hamas gunmen were back under Israeli control, but the situation remained tense.

Rumors circulated that militants had evaded capture and were still hiding out among farmlands. Sirens sounded across the country as dozens more rockets were fired from Gaza, some hitting residential areas.

At Ashkelon’s main hospital, wards are still at capacity, as authorities struggle to put names to the dead and treat the wounded, now numbering more than 2,400.

The government is “just now starting to get organized,” said Ron Lobel, director of emergency disaster management at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon.

As the attacks unfolded Saturday, cars full of bodies were showing up at the emergency room. In his 40 years practicing medicine, he said, he had never seen anything like it.

“Some were coming in with a dozen people and just unloading them,” he said. “Many without identification. Some were collected from different places; others were just left in the hospital with no information at all.”

Israel’s security forces have set up a missing persons center in Tel Aviv, but the system is fragmented and incomplete, leaving many families with little to no information.

Lobel was at his home in the tiny community of Netiv HaAsara when it was overrun by militants. He and his family hid in their bomb shelter for 13 hours before Israeli troops were able to reach them.

As they were evacuated to a nearby town, Lobel began to realize the scale of the tragedy. The roads were littered with dead civilians, he said. Many were not collected for a day or longer as soldiers fought to clear the area.

Judaism encourages burial as soon after death as possible to allow for natural decomposition. The bodies left out in the open shocked Lobel. “It’s unthinkable,” he said.

Seventeen of his friends and neighbors were killed in the attacks Saturday. As of Monday, none had been given proper burials.

“First, because of the security situation and because — this may seem trivial, but — our cemetery is too small,” he said.

Lobel’s neighborhood has been completely evacuated for the first time he can remember. If Israel launches a large military operation into Gaza, expected in the coming days, he said it could be weeks before he can return home.

In a community near Sderot, residents have returned to their homes, but there have been no funerals there either. Locals fear Hamas gunmen are still in the area. For the families of those killed, waiting to lay them to rest has been painful.

Oren Kappa, his eyes bloodshot and his hands fidgety, said he lost eight close friends in the attacks. He began to rattle off facts about each person.

“Two were my friends from college, one is a father of grown children, one was an old man, one was just a teenager, another was a soldier recently married with a small baby …”

He feels like he has had to put grief on hold. But he also worries that so many funerals, when they can be held, will bring a new kind of trauma.

“Afterwards, after everyone puts their dead in the ground, it’s going to get much more difficult,” he said.

In other parts of the country, the mourning process is beginning. At one cemetery in Jerusalem on Monday, back-to-back funerals were held for soldiers killed in the attacks.

One of the men, Natanel Young, had immigrated to Israel from Britain to join the security forces; his family couldn’t be there for the ceremony. Shahar Frankel, 58, traveled to Jerusalem from a neighboring town to attend the funeral. She didn’t know the man, but felt she should be there.

“The last thing we can do for him and his family is to accompany him on his final journey,” said Frankel, one of hundreds of mourners who gathered around the gravesite to pray and reflect. The service was briefly interrupted by an air raid siren before Young was laid to rest.

A young man at the cemetery, Yarin Krsis, 17, said he’s preparing to join the Israeli military next year after he graduates from high school.

“It’s scary to think about being drafted,” Krsis admitted, but quickly added, “this is our life now.”

Hannah Wacholder Katsman is waiting to honor her son’s memory. He was killed Saturday at the Holit Kibbutz in the first wave of attacks. She still hasn’t been called to formally identify his body.

“We don’t know when our turn will be,” she said, but emphasized that she understood. It was a difficult process, but one shared with so many others.

“I just keep in mind we’re not the only ones going through this,” she explained. “Some people have missing loved ones and they don’t even know their fate.”

Judith Sudilovsky in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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