The living and the dead: Gaza war cemetery

Jan 18, 2024
Gaza_War_Cemetery_5 Image: Wikimedia Commons

Gaza is surely now among the internet’s most recognisable words, for obvious reasons. It used to be far less familiar to Australians. Up to about 1948, if they knew it at all it was as the place where the Biblical blinded Samson pulled down the temple, or where the Light Horse fought in 1917 to carry the British empire’s war against the Ottomans from Sinai into Palestine. In 1943, Australians serving in the 9th Division fresh from their victory at El Alamein paraded there proudly, before returning to fight the Japanese.

With the creation of the state of Israel and the eviction or exodus of Palestinian Arabs, Gaza became one of the region’s largest refugee settlements, a source of further friction between Israel and its Arab neighbours and especially the Palestinian Arabs who seek redress for the loss of their homeland in the course of restoring the ancestral homeland of the Jews.

As the world knows all too well, Gaza has been bombarded seemingly indiscriminately by Israeli forces for a hundred days, causing the deaths and wounding of more than 20,000 civilians. The inhabitants of densely populated Gaza have been forced from their homes, many of which have been destroyed, in a military campaign which has aroused widespread international condemnation, and equally vociferously defended by Israel’s supporters.

Few Australians know that Gaza is the location of a large war cemetery dating originally from 1917 and completed by 1920 and now containing some 3600 graves. It originally held the British empire dead, most killed in the three battles for Gaza in 1917 (the third culminating in the celebrated charge at Beersheba). Further graves were added during the Second World War (several hospitals were located at Gaza) and a few more in the troubles preceding Israel’s creation and, ironically, in later peacekeeping operations. Most graves are of British troops, but they include 50 Indians, 23 New Zealanders, 23 Canadians, 36 Poles, and small numbers of South African, Greek, Egyptian, German, French and Yugoslavian dead, and 184 Ottoman troops. Some 210 of the graves are of Australians, mostly Lighthorsemen killed in 1917.

As we know from the maps and graphics on our televisions since last October, Gaza is a congested strip, with little open land. The war cemetery, administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, lies in Tuffah, a district in north Gaza, just three kilometres from the Israeli border. As a tiny but rare parcel of open greenery – it measures only 100 x 500m – the cemetery became a place for Gazans to picnic and take the air. Its shrubs and coarse, hardy grass had been cared for by only one family since 1920, handed on from father to son and grandson of the Jeradahs.

We do not know what Gazans make of the considerable effort the Christian West makes to commemorate the dead of a distant imperial conflict (since neither of the warring empires now exist). The Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s proud insistence that ‘their name liveth forever’ (the inscription in many of its cemeteries) jars with Islamic burial traditions, which do not even mandate grave inscriptions. That the great majority of headstones in the cemetery bear a cross makes this truly a strange if not an alien site to those who live around it.

Though usually an oasis of quiet, the cemetery has become caught up in the region’s conflicts before. Graves were vandalised as a protest against the atrocity of Abu Graib prison in 2004, and in 2006 and 2009 Israel paid the Commission £90,000 in compensation for damage it inflicted when retaliatory strikes against Hamas rocket sites went awry.

What has happened to the cemetery in the three months since Hamas’s shocking attacks on Israelis and Israel’s massive offensive against the people of Gaza? We don’t know; not even the Commonwealth War Graves Commission knows – it is apparently ‘monitoring the situation’, but seems uncertain of whether the graves, or the Jeradah family whose members care for them, have been damaged or destroyed. Has the Jeradahs’ house survived intact? We do not know.

What is certain is that Israel’s drive into Gaza took its tanks and personnel carriers into Gaza along Salah al-Din Road, the cemetery’s location, on the route into the city from the north-east. The cemetery is in Tuffah, reportedly the scene of heavy fighting early in the Israeli incursion between its forces and Hamas’s ‘Darj Tuffah Battalion’. While Israel has the technology to send bombs, shells and rockets guided precisely to targets, the scale of devastation in Gaza is such that the chances that the cemetery has been damaged must be high. Whether it will have been damaged intentionally (because Hamas fighters were in it) or inadvertently (because a rectangle 100 x 500m cannot easily be left unharmed) will perhaps never be known. We do not know whether the open space of the cemetery has been used to launch rocket attacks on Israel: its proximity to the border (and the perception that it would be immune from retaliation) must make that possible.

No one seems to have an idea how this tragic conflict can be ended peacefully and with justice to all parties, though clearly a peaceful resolution will require compromise and a willingness to share land which both sides claim. The world’s concern is with the living. All humane observers desire both that no more Israeli hostages are harmed, and that those taken on 7 October are returned unharmed, and that no more civilians are killed or wounded in Gaza.

But the fate of the graves of the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Gaza, once the full impact of the war is revealed, may provide a measure both of Israel’s claim that it has pursued its offensive responsibly and, if it could be proven, whether Hamas has infringed the neutrality accorded to such sites. In the meantime, as a relatively minor part of her Middle East mission, Penny Wong might seek some assurance that the 210 Australian war graves in the cemetery on Salah al-Din Road, are safe, even if the people who live around the cemetery are manifestly not.

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