It was quiet, grim work for a recovery team this week as it sifted through the rubble of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Shovels in hand, they unearthed what appeared to be a femur, a shoulder blade, the bones of a rib cage.

For two weeks in March, the Israeli military carried out a devastating raid at Al-Shifa, once the pillar of the Gazan medical system. The siege raised fears for the safety of hundreds of civilians trapped inside. 

Since the Israel Defense Forces withdrew last week, Palestinian crews have so far recovered the bodies of more than 400 people from Al-Shifa, the surrounding neighborhoods and the southern city of Khan Younis, according to Mahmoud Basal, a spokesman for the Gaza Civil Defense.

In a video recorded Monday by an NBC News crew, families watched as workers gathered remains, some of them little more than tattered clothing tangled around a cluster of bones and piled into white bags labeled “unidentified body.”

A Palestinian forensic and civil defense crew recover human remains at Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza this week.AFP- Getty Images

“Unfortunately, the bodies are rotten, are cut into pieces because of the bulldozers,” said Khalil Hamada, the head of general forensics for the Ministry of Justice. Hamada said Israeli forces used bulldozers to bury the dead in the sandy soil of Al-Shifa.

There are numerous shallow graves, and “many dead bodies were partially buried with their limbs visible,” with other bodies uncovered and exposed to the heat, the World Health Organization said Saturday. 

“Safeguarding dignity, even in death, is an indispensable act of humanity,” WHO said in a statement. In addition to those who were killed in the most recent offensive, in November, during the IDF’s first raid on Al-Shifa, hospital staff had been forced to bury 179 patients in a mass grave.

Israeli forces alleged that the hospital was being used as a Hamas hub. Gaza’s Health Ministry said around 30,000 patients, medical staff members and displaced people were sheltering at the hospital, with both the IDF and Gazan authorities saying that hundreds were killed, and hundreds more taken into custody. 

“Where are they? We do not know if they were detained or buried underground. We want someone to help us. I appeal to all the world to stand with us,” Maha Swelem, a nurse at Al-Shifa, told NBC News in an interview in Arabic on Monday. 

During the siege, Swelem said that she was corralled into one of the hospital’s buildings, along with about 15 others. After Israeli soldiers shot four people  “in front of my eyes,” Swelem said, they then took her husband, a volunteer paramedic. “I don’t know what happened to him yet,” she said. “Did they kill him and bury him?”  

Dr. Mutasim Salah, a member of a health emergency committee in Gaza, said “the smell of death” permeated the charred ruins of the hospital. But they were determined to keep working to identify the corpses, perhaps bring closure to mourning families and document what he described as a war crime against innocent civilians.

A United Nations (UN) team visit as Palestinian civil defence recover human remains the grounds of Al-Shifa hospital in Gaza
A United Nations team visit the grounds of Al-Shifa hospital during the recovery operation.AFP- Getty Images

“The scene cannot be described,” Salah said. “Throughout history, we have never seen, heard or thought that one day we would witness such a crime that occurred inside the Shifa Medical Complex.”

In a tweet on Saturday, the U.N. said Al-Shifa hospital was an “empty shell following the latest Israeli siege with most of the buildings extensively damaged or destroyed.” 

In the six months since the start of the war, Israeli forces have repeatedly pummeled hospitals in Gaza, despite international law stating that hospitals should not be attacked during war. The IDF has said Hamas operates command centers at hospitals, uses ambulances to transport militants and funnels hospital-bound fuel to military efforts, all of which Hamas and hospital staff deny.

Israel’s military has drawn intense international condemnation for its military operations in Gaza, and many humanitarian groups have accused the country of breaching international law by exercising collective punishment.

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