UN rights chief calls for independent investigation as more bodies recovered from Gaza mass graves

Workers uncovered more bodies on Monday from a mass grave at the Nasser medical complex in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. The United Nations human rights chief has called for an investigation into the deaths and destruction of the hospital site. (Mohamed El Saife - image credit)
Workers uncovered more bodies on Monday from a mass grave at the Nasser medical complex in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip. The United Nations human rights chief has called for an investigation into the deaths and destruction of the hospital site. (Mohamed El Saife - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains graphic descriptions of human remains.

The United Nations human rights chief on Tuesday said he was horrified by reports of the discovery of hundreds of bodies in mass graves at two medical facilities in Gaza and called for an independent investigation into the deaths and destruction of the complexes.

"Given the prevailing climate of impunity, this should include international investigators," Volk Türk said in a statement.

In the statement, he said the UN human rights office had "renewed concerns about possible war crimes" after officials in Gaza reported finding hundreds of bodies in mass graves at Nasser medical complex in Khan Younis after Israeli forces withdrew from the area in southern Gaza earlier this month.

Palestinian authorities also said they had found bodies at the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City in the north.

"Hospitals are entitled to very special protection under international humanitarian law," Türk said. "The intentional killing of civilians, detainees and others who are hors de combat is a war crime."

Civil defence crews say bodies have missing limbs

Civil defence crews continued searching for bodies Tuesday near the ruins of Nasser hospital, which was the largest in southern Gaza. Workers who spoke with CBC News on Monday said they had found bodies that had been decapitated or dismembered while some were in handcuffs.

"There is a clear assault on these bodies — some of them who were exposed to loss of arms and legs and some lost their heads," Sameh Hamad, a criminal evidence administrator in Gaza, told CBC.

WATCH: Criminal evidence administrator on bodies dug out from Nasser complex:

The bodies, including some of children, were buried in three main areas around the medical complex, including two by the morgue, said Muhammad Al-Mughair, director of the supply department at Gaza's civil defence agency, which conducts emergency and rescue services in the Hamas-controlled territory.

"During our efforts to reach the bodies, we found them handcuffed and executed in mass execution," said Al-Mughair.

The agency said on Tuesday that a total of 310 bodies had been found at one mass grave at Nasser so far and that two other graves had been identified but not yet excavated. The Palestinian Health Ministry repeated the figure.

IDF says bodies were respectfully examined and reburied

The Israeli military said claims by Palestinian authorities that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) had buried bodies were "baseless and unfounded." It said forces searching for Israeli hostages had examined bodies previously buried by Palestinians near Nasser hospital and had returned the bodies to where they were buried after they were examined.

"The examination was conducted in a careful manner and exclusively in places where intelligence indicated the possible presence of hostages," the IDF said in a statement. "The examination was carried out respectfully while maintaining the dignity of the deceased."

The UN human rights office (OHCR) said Tuesday a total of 283 bodies were recovered at Nasser Hospital, of which 42 were identified.

The agency said it was also working to corroborate reports by local health authorities in Gaza that 30 Palestinian bodies were found buried in two graves in the courtyard of Al-Shifa Hospital in northern Gaza — one in front of the emergency building and the others in front of the dialysis building.

Ravina Shamdasani, the spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the organization spoke out because of the number of bodies being discovered.

"Among the deceased [at Nasser] were allegedly older people, women and wounded while others were found tied with their hands … tied and stripped of their clothes," Shamdasani wrote in the statement Tuesday.

She said the reports from Palestinian officials indicated that some of the 30 bodies reportedly found at Al-Shifa were buried beneath piles of waste and included women and older people.

"There are reports that the hands of some of these bodies were also tied," Shamdasani said.

Shamdasani and Hamad said there could be many more bodies found.

Clothes, markings used to identify the dead

Hamad, the criminal evidence administrator, said Palestinian officials were identifying bodies from the mass grave at Nasser based on their clothing, belongings and "markings," with help from family members. He said some families told him the bodies of their loved ones had been maimed in ways unrelated to their original injuries.

"They say, for example, their [loved one's] injury was in the chest, but where did the head go?" Hamad said.

The war between Hamas and Israel erupted after a Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 left around 1,200 dead and saw about 250 others taken hostage, according to Israeli officials. Israel's responding offensive inside Gaza has killed more than 34,000 people, according to the local health ministry, with thousands more bodies believed to be still buried in the rubble of destroyed buildings.

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