An Israeli military operation destroys a cemetery in Gaza. Israel says Hamas used the site to hide a tunnel

Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip (AFP) – The Islamic cemetery in the southern Gaza Strip was demolished, and the graves were uprooted from the ground. A toothless skull rests on sand.

The Bani Suhaila neighborhood in the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, which soldiers showed to foreign journalists on Saturday, was destroyed and converted by Israeli forces. The army searched for Hamas underground tunnels. An Associated Press journalist saw a destroyed mosque and — where the cemetery once stood — a 140-meter-wide crater that gave way to what the military called a Hamas attack tunnel underneath. The military said on Monday that combat engineers had destroyed part of the network, and released a video showing massive explosions in the area.

As Israel moves forward with A Ground and air campaign In Gaza, which health officials in the blockaded enclave say has claimed the lives of more than 26,000 Palestinians, the army's destruction of holy sites has drawn intense criticism from Palestinians and human rights groups, who say the attack is also an assault on cultural heritage. Under international law, cemeteries and religious sites enjoy special protection – and their destruction could be considered a war crime.

Israel says that Hamas uses such sites as military cover, and deprives it of this protection. It says there is no way to achieve its military goal of defeating Hamas without finding the tunnels, where it says the militants built command and control centers and transported weapons and equipment. It hid some of the 130 hostages it was believed to be holding. They say tunneling entails unavoidable collateral damage to sacred spaces.

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“We are not so naive anymore,” the Israeli brigadier said. Gen. Dan Goldfus, who led reporters around the site Saturday.

Israel has presented similar arguments in operations that took place in and around the region Gaza hospitals.

Goldfus brought reporters inside a tunnel opening that he said ran under the mosque and cemetery. The journalists walked through a long concrete tunnel branching off in multiple directions and arrived at a small group of rooms that soldiers claimed Hamas fighters used as a command and control center.

It had three vaulted rooms – one with four chairs, one with a desk, and a kitchen with empty cans of beans and a spice rack. A military commander said that the tunnel, which includes an electrical transformer, fans, pipes with wires and lighting switches, extends for a distance of 800 meters and is connected to a larger tunnel network in southern Gaza.

The army says it has found similar sets of rooms In the tunnels spread throughout the Gaza Strip. It claimed that the headquarters shown to journalists on Saturday included the office of a Hamas commander, an operations room, and living quarters for senior Hamas members. She added that the tunnel was used to plan attacks against the army.

According to satellite analysis, the destroyed cemetery appears to be the cemetery of the Bani Suhaila martyrs.

Since Israel declared war against Hamas on October 7, the armed Islamic group has repeatedly been accused of using civilian sites in Gaza as a cover for military use. It says military operations – from raiding hospitals to digging graves and destroying holy sites – are necessary to dismantle armed groups. Command centers and bunkers.

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On October 7, Hamas fighters poured into southern Israel, killing 1,200 people and dragging about 250 hostages into Gaza. More than 100 hostages were exchanged for Palestinian prisoners during a week-long ceasefire in November.

Israel's retaliatory attack on Gaza displaced most of the 2.3 million population. According to the United Nations observer, the army destroyed 161 mosques during its operations. The agency said it did not track the number of graves damaged.

On Saturday, Goldfus ran his gloved hand across the surrounding moon's surface. The golden dome of the mosque was cracked and irregular, and had fallen on its shattered walls.

Goldfus said that Israeli forces destroyed the mosque after gunmen opened fire on them from inside its territory. Footage published by Israeli media showed soldiers using explosives to blow up the walls of the first floor of the mosque, leading to its collapse.

UNESCO called on both Hamas and Israel to refrain from attacking sites of cultural importance.

Under the Rome Statute, the 1998 treaty that established the International Criminal Court, cemeteries and mosques receive special protection as “civil property.” Destroying these sites could be considered a war crime, according to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Israel says that sites lose their protection when they are used for military purposes, and when the operational gains from targeting them outweigh the loss of civilian lives and infrastructure.

Goldfus said forces found other traces of Hamas activity in the area, from confiscated AK-47 rifles to a map of the border between Gaza and Israel that he said Hamas may have used in the October 7 attack.

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He said the destruction of the mosque and excavation of the cemetery were integral to locating about 60 tunnel openings in the area. Only one column was shown to journalists.

Goldfus said that dismantling the tunnel network constitutes a “puzzle” for the forces. He said it was difficult to work in the area without harming holy sites and even human remains.

“We are trying to move them aside as much as possible,” he said when asked about the exhumed bodies. “But remember, when we're fighting in this place, and your enemy surrounds you over and over again, and uses these vehicles to hide, there's not much you can do.”

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