IDF Launches Operation in Khan Younis Area to Locate Remains of Missing Soldiers
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have admitted to carrying out operations in cemeteries in the Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis over the past week, drawing widespread condemnation from Palestinian officials and some human rights groups.
The IDF said its forces excavated graves and removed remains in the Nasrallah Cemetery as part of ongoing efforts to locate the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed during the 2014 Gaza war, Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul. Their bodies are believed to be held by Hamas militants in Gaza.
“The IDF conducted an operation in the Khan Younis area in order to locate the bodies of Lt. Hadar Goldin and Sgt. Oron Shaul,” the IDF said in a statement. “The operation was conducted in a respectful manner, differences were mended and the graves were reburied.”
Witnesses Describe Chaotic Scenes as Heavy Machinery Enters Cemeteries
However, Palestinian witnesses in Khan Younis described scenes of chaos and destruction as Israeli military bulldozers and other heavy machinery entered the cemeteries under cover of darkness late Wednesday and early Thursday.
“There was a huge military operation involving drones, sniffer dogs, and engineering equipment excavating the ground,” said one witness interviewed by CNN. “They were operating mainly in the new section of the cemetery and had floodlights…It was chaotic.”
Other witnesses reported seeing remains and body parts strewn on the ground after the IDF forces left early Thursday morning. Photos circulating on social media showed debris and mounds of earth around demolished grave sites.
Palestinian authorities said at least 20 graves were damaged in what they termed a “war crime” and “crime against humanity.”
|Graves Reported Damaged in IDF Operation
|Nasrallah Cemetery in Khan Younis: at least 10-15
|Abasan al Kabira: at least 5
|Total: At least 20
“It was one of the most heart-breaking and disturbing scenes I have witnessed in my years of reporting,” said Jeremy Diamond, a CNN senior international correspondent who visited the Nasrallah Cemetery shortly after the IDF departed Thursday morning.
Diamond said it appeared heavy machinery had excavated layers of graves, and remains were “clearly visible” in the overturned earth.
“To see a place where so many families bury their loved ones so grossly desecrated is truly shocking,” he said.
Israel Accused of Desecration and Organ Theft
Palestinian officials accused the IDF of deliberately smashed gravestones and exhuming corpses in a grievous violation of religious rites regarding the dead.
“This barbaric act is a flagrant violation of principles of international humanitarian law,” Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said in a statement. “It is colonization and organ theft.”
Gaza’s Hamas rulers called the cemetery operation a ‘”heinous crime” that exposed Israel’s “savage and racist nature.” Over 60 other militant factions and civil society groups in Gaza endorsed a joint statement describing the act as “barbaric aggression.”
Criticism also came from outside groups such as Amnesty International and Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem. They called on the IDF to cease disrupting cemeteries and exhuming remains immediately and labeled the operations as potential war crimes.
“The reported scale of the grave disturbances and removals is shocking, unjustified, and abhorrent,” said Omar Shakir, Israel director at Human Rights Watch.
Netanyahu Defends “Painful” Operation as Necessary
Israeli officials defended the operations as a difficult but necessary step to secure the return of its missing soldiers and bring closure to affected families. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was committed to the ethical treatment of enemy casualties but would take exceptional measures when required.
“The operation was painful and subject to criticism, but we have a moral obligation to find the bodies of our sons,” Netanyahu said in a statement.
Other senior Israeli ministers echoed his stance that complex graveyard missions were legitimate to counter Hamas, which is holding the remains of Goldin and Shaul to extract concessions from Israel regarding the Gaza blockade and prisoner exchanges.
Critics argued such reasoning did not justify the desecration of cemeteries in violation of international law. They called on Israel to explore options to defuse tensions with Hamas rather than resort to extreme unilateral measures bound to inflame emotions on both sides of the conflict.
Grave Operations Seen as Severe Provocation
Palestinian militants fiercely denounced the cemetery operations, with some leaders calling for retaliation attacks against Israel. Already high tensions along the Israel-Gaza border have escalated sharply this week.
On Thursday night, militants in Gaza launched rockets and mortars toward Israeli border towns, drawing return artillery fire from Israeli tanks parked near Gaza. An uneasy truce was restored Friday, but fears remain violence may spiral out of control.
Inside Israel, families of the captive Israeli soldiers expressed sympathy for families in Gaza who had loved ones’ graves disturbed but still insisted the missing bodies must be found at all costs.
The week’s turmoil illustrates how the eight-month search for the remains of Goldin and Shaul continues to strike sensitive nerves on both sides of the conflict, inflaming passions over past grievances and dimming hopes for de-escalation anytime soon.
In this charged atmosphere, there were concerns the cemetery desecrations may trigger wider unrest. Further operations by the IDF targeting cemeteries and civilian infrastructure inside Gaza risk severe retaliation, experts warned.
As the crisis continued Friday, the United States and Egypt were reportedly attempting mediation efforts to calm the situation but had yet made little tangible progress.
For now, the region held its breath, but the coming days and weeks looked precarious as ever along the restive Israel-Gaza border.
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