Gaza violence disrupts even the dead

Historic World War I cemeteries badly damaged in recent attacks.
By Matt Beynon Rees - GlobalPost

In Gaza, violence is so prevalent, even death doesn’t put you beyond its reach. Nor does a grave protect you from further insult to your dignity.

The fighting between Israeli forces and Hamas gunmen at the turn of the year damaged several hundred of the 3,500 gravestones in the World War I British military cemetery in Gaza City. A matter of months earlier, Palestinian Islamists entered another British war cemetery further south in the Gaza Strip at Deir el-Balah and blew up the 6-foot-high cross at the edge of the lawn where 727 soldiers — Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Muslim — have lain since 1917.

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is demanding $135,000 compensation from the Israeli government for the damage to the Gaza graves. The Israeli army at first said the damage was probably caused by an accidental explosion in a Palestinian weapons cache at the site, though it later added that its troops returned fire at Palestinians shooting from the vicinity of the graveyard.

Many people have forgotten the British campaign in Palestine of 1916-18, and few even know that there are British military cemeteries in Gaza.

But all this matters to me. I had two great-uncles who fought in Palestine, riding with the Imperial Camel Corps. One of them was still alive when I was a boy. He used to get drunk at Christmas and drop his pants to show us the scar where a Turkish bullet had wounded him in his backside, just before the British marched into Jerusalem.

I made the Deir el-Balah cemetery a key part of the plot of my second Palestinian crime novel “A Grave in Gaza” as a tribute to my great-uncles and the comrades who weren’t lucky enough to show off their wounds to kids like me.

That novel, whose plot involved the weapons smuggling and corruption that afflicts Gaza today, was published in February last year. Two months later, the cross in the graveyard was destroyed.

“The history of this region is complex. But the right of the dead to lie in peace and dignity is simple and should be respected by all,” the War Graves Commission said in a statement at the time. “We hope that the authorities in Gaza will make every effort to apprehend those responsible.”

Good luck.

As for the $100,000 cost of replacing the cross, Palestinians won’t be paying for that. Nowadays they have other things that need repairing more urgently.

Local residents say the cross was blown up by an Islamist group. It’s a shame because the cemetery includes sections for four major faiths. But in Gaza that kind of tolerance, even in death, is as outdated today as the terminology of the cemetery’s original plan, which designates its Muslim section as “Mohammedan.”

The Deir el-Balah cemetery is also a beautiful place. A green lawn and a neatly clipped hedge, its upkeep is paid for by the War Graves Commission and overseen by officials at the British consulate in Jerusalem.

Back in 1916, it was a place of carnage. The British launched an assault on the Turkish positions in Gaza that failed dismally. More than 6,000 British troops were cut down in a few days. It was the first time the British used the mustard gas that would become such a feature of trench warfare in Flanders. They failed to gauge the wind correctly and the gas blew back on their own soldiers.

The following year, with a more competent commander, the British returned and won. They left behind four cemeteries in the Gaza Strip: two in Gaza City, one in Deir el-Balah, and another in Rafah. All places devastated in the most recent fighting.
The War Graves Commission successfully pressed Israel for $150,000 compensation for damage to graves in one of the Gaza cemeteries after an army operation there in 2006.

That action was intended to rescue Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Palestinian gunmen from his post on the edge of the Gaza Strip and still captive somewhere in Gaza.

This time there are signs of shrapnel on many of the gravestones in Gaza City, but the commission might run into difficulty proving that it was caused by Israeli troops. Potential witnesses among the local population had all been forced to flee the intense fighting before it hit the cemetery.

That leaves only the dead as witnesses. They’d surely testify that, almost a century after their passing, Gaza continues to have a special relationship with killing.

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Comment by Benjamin Sobieck on March 11, 2009 at 1:31pm
Will some of the funds the United States has committed go toward repairing damages such as these? Nearly $1 billion is on the table for Gaza. Or will the funds be squandered for ulterior purposes as they change hands?

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