IDF Launches Controversial Cemetery Operation in Khan Younis
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have admitted to carrying out operations in a cemetery in the Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis over the past month, with troops digging up graves as part of the search for the remains of two Israeli hostages held by Palestinian militants.
IDF spokesman Richard Hecht stated on January 18th that the operations began after the IDF received intelligence that the remains of IDF hostages Hassem Zumlot and Ido Baruch, who were killed by their Palestinian captors last year, had been buried in the cemetery.
“We carried out efforts to collect the bodies…We didn’t find the bodies but we will continue efforts to bring them back,” Hecht said. Source
The operations have caused widespread damage and distress in Khan Younis, with explosives used to open graves and heavy machinery employed to dig craters in the ground. Local Palestinians have accused the IDF of ‘desecrating’ the cemetery.
Operation Triggers Protests and International Condemnation
As images emerged of the damaged cemetery on January 17th, hundreds of Khan Younis residents took to the streets to protest the IDF operation. Protesters carried Palestinian flags and banners accusing Israel of ‘grave violations’ against both the living and the dead.
The operations have also triggered condemnation from human rights groups and global powers. The UN Human Rights Office for the Palestinian Territories stated that the desecration of burial sites could constitute a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.
“There are clear indications that graves and burial grounds have been desecrated over the last month…actions targeting burial grounds endanger basic human dignity,” the UN office said. Source
Both the United States and the European Union have called on the Israeli government to launch an urgent investigation into the matter.
Israel Defends ‘Unique and Extreme’ Operation
In a press conference on January 19th, senior IDF officials stated that the operation was both ‘unique and extreme’ but claimed it was vital to retrieve the remains of the dead hostages.
“These are not simple actions, but in this unique event when there is a real possibility to bring the boys back home it is our obligation to turn over every stone,” the officials said. Source
Criticism was rejected, with the officials stating that utmost care had been taken to limit damage and that excavated graves would be restored ‘to their previous state.’
The Israeli Ambassador to the UN also defended the operation, accusing critics of double standards. “Would you sit quietly if the bodies of your fallen soldiers were held by terrorists? We have a moral duty to bring back our sons,” the Ambassador said.
Support within Israel but Fears of Escalation
The operation has received backing from senior members of Israel’s new hardline government. Both Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defence Minister Bezalel Smotrich have praised the IDF’s ‘courageous’ actions to retrieve the remains of the dead hostages.
However, opposition lawmakers and former defence chiefs have warned that the provocative actions within Gaza could lead to further conflict between Israel and Palestinian militant groups.
“To prevent an escalation we need to immediately stop these operations…No potential gain is worth igniting the situation on the Gaza border,” said former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz said. Source
Ongoing IDF Operations as Hostage Crisis Continues
The cemetery operation is part of the IDF’s continuing efforts to resolve the 18-month hostage crisis, which began in June 2022 when two Israeli civilians crossed the border fence into Gaza and were captured. Multiple prisoners swaps have failed and tensions remain high along the Israel-Gaza border.
IDF officials have indicated that the search within Khan Younis’ cemetery will continue for the foreseeable future. Troop numbers have been increased and heavy machinery has been shipped to the Gaza border as further graves are slated for excavation.
With more protests expected and militants vowing reprisals over the ‘desecration’, the UN has warned the cemetery crisis could spark a dangerous escalation between Israel and Gaza. The US and European nations continue frantic diplomatic efforts to defuse rising tensions, but a peaceful resolution remains elusive.
Timeline of Key Events
|June 12, 2022
|2 Israeli civilians cross border fence into Gaza. Captured by Palestinian militants
|Aug 11, 2022
|Palestinian group releases video showing 2 Israelis held hostage
|Oct 30, 2022
|Israel-Hamas talks on prisoner exchange end without deal
|Dec 25, 2022
|Palestinian group announces hostages killed after prisoner swap fails
|Jan 17, 2023
|Images emerge of damage to Khan Younis cemetery from IDF operation
|Jan 18, 2023
|IDF admits to digging up graves in search for remains of hostages
|Jan 19, 2023
|Widespread protests in Gaza over ‘desecration’ of cemetery
|Jan 20, 2023
|Israeli officials defend cemetery operation as vital to retrieve dead
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