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Nowhere to Live, Nowhere to Die

Not even the dead can rest in Gaza

In January, part of the cemetery that belonged to the town of Bani Suheila, just east of Khan Younis in Gaza, was reduced to a crater. Israeli bulldozers circled the void. The IDF claimed that a Hamas tunnel ran under the burial ground, rendering its desecration—in clear violation of international law—a regrettable but necessary step in its campaign to eliminate the terrorist group.

Since the start of Israel’s invasion over five months ago, schools, apartment blocks, hospitals, mosques, churches, universities, and UN shelters have been indiscriminately bombed. But the assault is not reserved to the domain of the living: graveyards have also come under attack. At least sixteen cemeteries in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed by the IDF since October 7, according to a CNN investigation.

After the publication of that report, the IDF invited CNN reporter Jeremy Diamond and his camera crew to tour the cemetery outside Bani Suheila with Brigadier General Daniel Goldfuss. Together, they crawled into the entrance of a purported Hamas tunnel outside the graveyard, where Goldfuss told Diamond—and by proxy, the world—that the subterranean maze in which they were standing was directly under the cemetery, hence why the army had no choice but to destroy dozens of graves. From the inside, there’s no way of proving this. When they re-emerged, still outside the cemetery, Diamond asked Goldfuss if they could see the tunnels supposedly “discovered” by the army within the cemetery itself. He was denied access. Instead, the army provided his team with drone footage of two Hamas tunnel entrances. After geolocating the video as part of a postmortem report, CNN found that neither were within the grounds of the cemetery. The IDF has yet to provide any evidence corroborating their initial claims. Questions remain, the most pressing of which is what the army has done with the missing bodies. (Pressed by Diamond on the matter, the general demurred: “We try and move them aside as much as we can, as much as possible.”)

The logic of Zionist settler colonialism doesn’t just require the elimination of Palestine in the present, but even in the past.

If the UN’s definition of genocide comprises “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”—the living body of a people—then the widespread desecration of cemeteries should be understood as a further step, what we might refer to as necrocide. Though it doesn’t have a clear, agreed-upon definition, the term has been used by scholars of the Holocaust and Bosnian genocides to describe either the rushed and improper disposal of thousands of corpses after a mass killing, or the exhumation and physical destruction of bodies already buried in mass graves for the purposes of covering up Nazi or Serbian crimes, respectively. In the case of Gaza, necrocide should be applied differently. Israeli war communiqués have done little to convincingly challenge the meticulously documented mass killings in hospitals or ration lines, and the “evidence” disposed of in Gaza’s cemeteries is not Palestinians killed in this war but those who were already dead. The logic of Zionist settler colonialism not only requires the elimination of Palestine in the present; it asks us to believe that Palestine, and Palestinians, never existed at all.

We would be remiss to think of any graveyard as a dead space. Perhaps the greatest threat to the Zionist state is sewn into the earth beneath the treads of a tank—a network of social, political, and historical relations that challenge an exclusively Jewish civilizational claim over the whole of Palestine in the form of the burial ground. The subterranean targets of the IDF are both Hamas guerrillas and the deceased that Israel alleges are being used as human shields, even in death. The violation of the Bani Suheila cemetery and others like it is not merely collateral damage wrought by this latest war: the destruction of Palestinian graves was part and parcel to the violent founding of the Israeli state, and its continued encroachment onto the lands where Palestinians live and die.

In the crassest material terms, every plot of land in which the dead rest is valuable real estate. In political terms, the power of Palestinian graveyards comes from the fact they are repositories of memory. Whether legible and organized as a cemetery where bodies are properly buried in individual plots, or huddled together anonymously in mass graves, the dead provide testimonies that challenge modern Zionism’s telling of its own history. This is of particular resonance to the Nakba in 1948, when Israeli settlers massacred some fifteen thousand Palestinians and forced more than seven hundred thousand from their homes. Entire villages were depopulated, many of them razed, including their cemeteries. Subsequently, many of these villages were planted over by trees.

But traces remain. Throughout the country, pockets of forlorn graves speckle the landscape ominously: the remnants of a forlorn Palestinian cemetery Tiberias, where one hundred thousand natives were forced from their homes across the Galilee in 1948 alone; around the perimeter of West Jerusalem’s Independence Park and nearby Museum of Tolerance, both built over parts of the massive Mamilla necropolis; on the ground of what are now Israeli military sites that cannot be regularly accessed by any civilian, even if their family’s bodies were laid to rest there. Then there are the clandestine gravesites whose existence have only been brought to international attention in recent years, such as Tantura, the site of mass graves containing the bodies of villagers massacred by Zionist soldiers on May 23, 1948. In 2023, Forensic Architecture, with the help of witness testimony, located several unmarked burial sites on the grounds of a beach resort built on the site of the former Tantura village.

Some communities still continue to use these ancestral burial grounds, despite the fact that villages that once surrounded them are no more. One example is the village of Iqrit on the Lebanese border, which the IDF razed—all but the church—on Christmas Day in 1951. The grandchildren of those who fled Iqrit still regularly perform burials in their ancestors’ original cemetery, and hold weddings in the surviving chapel. The “return to Iqrit” is a sort of pilgrimage that anchors these descendants in a past that was almost destroyed. The graves themselves are a spiritual compass for the displaced—no matter how many generations they are removed from the catastrophe. In maintaining their connection to these cemeteries, descendants refuse to accept their dispossession. But Iqrit, where the evicted were able to stay within Israel, is not representative of the majority of Nakba survivors. Most were forced to flee to Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria, or Lebanon, sealed off from their dead by borders. 

In Israel, biblical geography is openly used by both religious and nonreligious politicians as the blueprint for the illegal settlement of occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Beyond the context of battle, the necrocide of Palestine has also extended to ancient cemeteries that date back to the time of the Prophet, particularly those around al-Aqsa, some of which remain in use today while others are revered for their historic and religious significance. The desecration of these sites has not gone unchallenged. Archaeologists, NGOs, and religious leaders corralled together in defense of the dead. In Jerusalem, The Committee for the Preservation of Islamic Cemeteries, organizers in the Silwan neighborhood, and the archaeological organization Emek Shaveh have worked tirelessly to resist land grabs east of the Old City, where non-Jewish graveyards are particularly vulnerable to expanding settlements, as well as the development of a Biblical theme park called City of David. Extremist vigilantes have also taken matters into their own hands. They’ve a particular ire for Christian cultural sites. Early last year, two teenage Jewish settlers were indicted for vandalizing tombstones in a Protestant cemetery on Mount Zion, which was once the resting place of King David according to the beliefs of some Jews.

In Israel, biblical geography is openly used by both religious and nonreligious politicians as the blueprint for the illegal settlement of occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The attestation of an exclusively Jewish claim over biblical Israel relies on both liturgical and secular tellings of history, specifically archaeology. Since the early days of the Zionist movement in the late nineteenth century, archaeological exploration has been a foundational tool in the making of Israel’s national mythology. In the words of anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, whose archeological treatise Facts on the Ground analyzes the relationship between archaeology and Israeli nation-building, “Archaeologists assemble material culture henceforth embedded in the terrain itself, facts on the ground that instantiate particular histories and historicities.” Thus archaeological digs—intended to “recover” biblical treasures—became said “terrain” on which the modern Israeli nation state cements its eternal status in history.

The very configuration of the Zionist state privileges Jewish political power at the expense of non-Jews by definition, and this framework is applied to the dig site. Archaeologists routinely disturb human remains of all faiths and cultures, but Haredi communities in Israel have been able to contest the excavation of historic Jewish burial sites while similar demands from Palestinians have gone ignored. According to Abu El-Haj, “Archaeologists are much less cautious with the remains of non-Jewish cemeteries,” citing examples in which Muslim bones were sifted, exhumed, and discarded from the historical record. Whether delicately excavated by the archaeologist’s tools, or ruthlessly bulldozed by a soldier, the physical removal of non-Jewish graves affirm the Zionist settlers rank as the only legitimate heir to Israel and Palestine’s history. Everyone else, whether living or dead, are merely an interruption to that historical continuum.   

Necrocide and genocide are not inverses of one another. Rather, they are two components of the same coordinated effort to exterminate Palestinian life. Genocide calls for the destruction of the body. Necrocide calls for the destruction of its shadow. In her book Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear, legal scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian (who was recently suspended from her position at Hebrew University for her condemnation of Zionism and recent coverage of the war) identifies how Israel’s occupation saturates every sphere of Palestinian life, from the time they are conceived to well beyond their deaths; on Earth and in the afterlife. Her analysis draws on Israel’s systematic grave desecration, as well as the bureaucratic hurdles faced by Palestinians attempting to bury their dead amid ongoing occupation. The injustices of Israel’s apartheid—eviction, displacement, exile, and forced disappearances—loom over the living and nonliving alike, for the purposes of expunging Palestinian life and death from the arc of time. She writes:

The Palestinians’ routinely evicted bodies haunt the settler. The dead bodies, as well as the spaces in which they reside, remind the colonizer that the unseen bones are there to tell a story, and the story could only be silenced by erasing the bodies themselves.

What the concept of necrocide asks us to do is try to understand how the dead are not dead at all: the Palestinian graveyard teems with life, literal and metaphysical. In the Palestinian tradition, it is customary for families to visit graves of loved ones on auspicious feast days such as Eid ul Fitr. Beyond personal context, cemeteries anchor communities to their ancestral past while providing future progeny a place to rest. Burial grounds exist outside the temporality of earthly life—and to remove them not only erases the legacies of those who’ve already passed but deprives their progeny of a place to rest. It threatens the possibility of their community’s continued existence in a particular place.

While particularizing violence against the dead as necrocide may provide some clarity, naming it is not enough. Like genocide, necrocide is only a word, an intellectual exercise if the world does not act to prevent it. In the context of Gaza, the current violence echoes patterns from 1948. If we are to understand anything from the past, the razing of cemeteries could be an omen of future Israeli settlement of the Strip, in lockstep with some of the highest Israeli politicians’ personal aspirations for Gaza once the war has ended. The families of those exhumed in the sixteen cemeteries damaged or destroyed so far will probably never be given an explanation for the military’s actions, let alone the chance to properly inter the remains of their loved ones. This will only become more devastating as time goes on.

Gazans are in the midst of a second Nakba, or really, the latest explosion of violence wrought by the catastrophe that has continued since 1948. Just seventy-five years later, the descendants of those refugees have been rendered refugees once more. They are being forced to make the same choices. To leave their lives behind, likely to never return; to leave their dead behind, or join them. As the speed and scope of devastation reaches new heights, the boundary between life and death is blurred. Spaces where life normally begins and ends are inverted. Hospitals have been reduced to death chambers. Displaced survivors of aerial bombardments now resort to living in tents among tombstones. The whole of Gaza is a legitimate target by the Israeli army, and as a consequence, the living are treated as if they’re already gone, and the dead are considered threats to the state.