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Occupation leads to mass burial

| Wednesday, April 3, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) — Under a gray, dripping fog penetrated by the occasional crack of gunfire, Palestinians buried 15 of their dead Tuesday in a hospital parking lot — a gesture driven by grim necessity, but also intended as a protest against hardships suffered during Israel's 5-day-old military occupation of this West Bank city.

At Ramallah Hospital, bodies had been piling up in the morgue since Friday, slowly decomposing because there was no electricity to refrigerate them. Because of gunbattles in the streets and a tight military curfew, Palestinian families were unable to claim the bodies of loved ones and bring them to cemeteries for burial.

So hospital administrators decided it would be best to lay the dead to rest for the time being in a makeshift grave in the parking lot across the street from the hospital.

The scene could hardly have been more dismal. A driving rain fell as a yellow earth mover bit into the asphalt, then the dark dirt below, carving out a 15-by-15-foot pit.

The stench of death wafted across the parking lot as the corpses of 13 men and two women in blood-streaked white plastic body bags were carried one by one to their common grave. It had been lined with wooden pallets and blankets that were quickly soaked by the heavy, foggy drizzle. There was a separate, smaller pit for the women's bodies.

Palestinians say the dead were noncombatants, while Israel has suggested most were combatants.

Their families — the few that were able to make their way to the hospital during a brief lifting of the curfew — wailed in grief as the bodies were lowered one by one, half a dozen men slipping and struggling in the pit as they awkwardly wrestled each into place alongside the last. The hospital's director murmured hasty prayers, and angry shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" — God is Great! — arose.

The jostling crowd of more than 100 people was made up of hospital workers and others — women in the traditional long embroidered dress, teens in jeans and sweatshirts, old men in robes and Arab headdresses. About a dozen members of European peace groups who have been in Ramallah protesting the Israeli military incursion milled about, a few clutching red flowers.

"It is terrible for their lives to have to end in such a way, in such a place," said the hospital's haggard-faced director, Dr. Husni Atari, who was dressed in green surgical scrubs and a yellow plastic bag with armholes cut in it to protect him from the rain.

Twenty bodies in all were prepared for burial, but five were taken away at the last moment by family members who said they did not know when or how they would get them to the graveyard.

Hospital dietician Zekia Shaleh braved the rain and the threat of gunfire to watch the burial.

"We hospital workers wanted to be here, to represent the families who could not come," she said, eyes welling. "It is a shame, more than a shame, what we have had to do here today."

When all the bodies had been placed in the common graves, the bulldozer went quickly to work shoveling dirt back into it. Someone stuck three small plastic small Palestinian flags in the mound of earth as a few mourners lingered.

Then the crowd dispersed as gunfire was heard down the street. Sirens screamed as an ambulance arrived with a cargo of five injured, including a 14-year-old boy who grimaced in pain, his right leg covered with a bloody bandage.

Atari, the hospital director, said he hoped he would not have to preside over another burial like this one.

"We are deprived of our dignity by these circumstances," he said. "Who can live like this• Who can die like this?"

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