Israeli forces severely damaged a cemetery in Khan Younis in southern Gaza earlier this week, exhuming and removing bodies in what the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) told CNN was part of a search for the remains of hostages seized by Hamas during the October 7 terror attacks.
Footage of the burial ground showed the area bulldozed, with graves damaged and destroyed, and human remains left exposed, after the IDF conducted operations in the area.
In response to CNN’s request for comment on the damaging of graves, the IDF told CNN on Thursday that rescuing the hostages and finding and returning their bodies is one of their key missions in Gaza, which is why the bodies were removed.
“The hostage identification process, conducted at a secure and alternative location, ensures optimal professional conditions and respect for the deceased,” an IDF spokesperson told CNN, adding that bodies that are determined not be those of hostages are “returned with dignity and respect.”
According to international law, an intentional attack on a cemetery could amount to a war crime, except under very limited circumstances relating to that site becoming a military objective.
The IDF told CNN that when “critical intelligence or operational information is received,” it conducts “precise hostage rescue operations in the specific locations where information indicates that the bodies of hostages may be located.”
“If not for Hamas’ reprehensible decision to take Israeli men, women, children and babies hostages, the need for such searches for our hostages would not exist,” the IDF added.
Reports about the IDF taking corpses from gravesites have been circulating on social media, shared by people outraged by the practice. This marks the first time the IDF has admitted to the exhumations.
Israel has said that 253 people were taken hostage during the Hamas attack and believes 132 hostages are still in Gaza – 105 of them alive and 27 dead.
A satellite image of the cemetery taken by Maxar on January 15 shows the area undisturbed, indicating that the damage happened between then and when the IDF moved into the area on January 17.
The IDF operation around the area of the cemetery, which also includes the Al Nasser hospital compound and a Jordanian field hospital, sparked panic, according to videos from the scene and local witnesses.
Around 7,000 people are sheltering at the Al Nasser compound, according to the World Health Organization.
Late on Tuesday, Israeli forces began moving towards the hospital, prompting crowds of people to flee. Multiple videos from the scenes showed people carrying blankets, mattresses and other personal belongings making their way out of the compound.
The IDF said on Tuesday that Hamas had recently carried out a launch from within the hospital compound towards Israeli forces in Khan Younis. It said that IDF “commando forces have been operating in the Khan Younis area in order to locate and dismantle terror infrastructure.”
The Jordanian Armed Forces said that the field hospital they run that is located next to the cemetery in Khan Younis sustained “severe material damage” as a result of “continuous Israeli bombardment in the hospital’s surroundings overnight and into Wednesday morning.”
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