Thousands of Gazans Have Gone Missing. No One is Accounting for Them.

Loay Ayyoub for The Washington Post
Palestinians inspect their homes after Israeli strikes hit the Al-Masry Tower on March 9 in Rafah.

JERUSALEM – A teenager who sold cigarettes. A singer on the rise. An engineer at a local bottling plant.

They are among thousands who have been reported missing in Gaza.

Many disappeared under the rubble after airstrikes. Others are believed to have been detained at Israeli checkpoints while fleeing south or trying to return to the north. Some simply left one day and never came back.

Their desperate families search hospitals and contact hotlines set up by International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). They scour photos of bodies in the streets and of blindfolded men detained by Israeli forces. They share pictures of relatives online, pleading for leads.

From October through February, the ICRC received reports of 5,118 Palestinians missing in Gaza. The Washington Post interviewed 15 people who lost contact with friends and family in Gaza since Oct. 7 – in only two cases were they able to find them. The most painful part, many said, was being in the dark about their fate.

“We hoped that we would succeed in getting even the most basic information,” said Ahmed Jalal, whose brother-in-law Mahmoud Abu Hani, a 25-year-old singer of traditional Arab music, disappeared Feb. 3 while trying to return home to Gaza City.

“Being lost is harder than him having been killed in the war or detained,” Jalal said. “When you are lost, no one knows anything.”

Israel’s war in Gaza, launched after the devastating Hamas-led attack on southern Israel, has killed more than 31,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians but says the majority of the dead are women and children. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) estimates it has killed between 11,500 and 13,000 militants, as it seeks to eradicate Hamas from the enclave.

The ministry relies mostly on reports from hospitals for its death counts. With the enclave’s medical system in shambles, Palestinian health officials say many more deaths have gone unrecorded. Roads are impassable and communication networks are unreliable. Israel, meanwhile, will not disclose the identities of the hundreds of residents rights groups believe its forces have detained.

The IDF did not comment for this story, but has said previously that “suspects of terrorist activities” in Gaza are arrested and “brought to Israeli territory for further investigation.” Those found not to be involved in terrorist activity are sent back to Gaza, the military has said, and those who remain in detention are treated in accordance with Israeli law.

There has been no systematic effort to account for the missing. Last Friday, five months into the war, Gaza’s Health Ministry published a Google form to start collecting names of the dead and missing.

Under the rubble

In the initial weeks of Israel’s air campaign, the missing were mainly believed to be trapped, dead or alive, under rubble.

Mohammed Bassal, a spokesman for the civil defense emergency services in Gaza, estimates that 8,000 bodies remain in the wreckage. During the first months of the war, rescue teams raced to strike sites when they could. But without proper equipment, he said, they were often left to dig people out by hand – or not at all.

Bassal says his teams in Gaza City rarely find full bodies now, instead uncovering partial remains – most decomposed and unidentifiable.

Ghada al-Kurd, 38, believes her brother, Safwat, his wife, Maysoon, and their 10-year-old daughter, Habiba, are among those lost in the ruins.

Kurd’s sister called Nov. 19 to say that a missile had struck the three-story house where their brother was staying in the Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza. At first, neighbors said no one was home. Then they saw legs protruding from the rubble.

But without heavy equipment, Kurd said by phone from Rafah, rescuers “were unable to recover them, and they are still missing.” The family is not in the health ministry’s official list of the dead.

Ghada Isaa, who lives in the town of Salfit in the occupied West Bank, last heard from her sister, Wifa’a Alamoor, in Gaza City on Nov. 8. The 50-year-old had no immediate family left in the enclave, Issa said.

Israel’s military bombed Alamoor’s neighborhood near al-Shifa Hospital, saying it was targeting Hamas fighters in the area. Her landlord, who lives abroad, told Isaa the apartment next door was hit. Was her sister there?

“I don’t know,” said Isaa. “There was no one with her. No one to go look for her.”

“God willing, we will find her,” she said. “In the end we all die, but we must know her fate.”

Suspected Israeli detentions

When Israel invaded Gaza in late October, it directed residents in the northern part of the territory to flee south. Raed Halabi, a 30-year-old programmer, heeded the order. His brother, Mahmoud, was traveling with him and says he was detained by Israeli forces.

On Nov. 15, according to Mahmoud, the brothers approached the main Israeli checkpoint, called Netzarim, on the Salah al-Din highway.

“The Israeli soldier called him over on the microphone,” Mahmoud said. Raed’s wife and three children were also there. “They said, ‘Give your son to his mom and come.’”

Raed complied, Mahmoud said. It was the last his family saw of him.

“We are civilians,” his brother said. “He didn’t have any connection with [militant groups].”

Mahmoud contacted the ICRC. But Israel has denied the organization access to its detention centers since Oct. 7. Hamas has also refused the ICRC’s requests to visit Israelis kidnapped by the group on Oct. 7. More than 100 remain in captivity in Gaza.

“We understand the immense pain of family members who are anxiously waiting for news of their loved one, and the frustration when this doesn’t happen in a timely manner,” said ICRC spokeswoman Sarah Davies.

Ziad Musa, 26, has “no trust” that any humanitarian organization will help his friend, Adel Abu Aisha.

“They have left civilians behind,” he said.

Abu Aisha, an engineer at a Coca Cola bottling facility, disappeared during an Israeli raid two months ago in Gaza City, Musa said. He suspects he was detained.

The IDF did not respond to questions about Aisha and Halabi.

The Israeli rights group HaMoked has received reports of 425 Gazans, nearly all men, believed to have been detained since late October, according to executive director Jessica Montell. Israeli authorities, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly rejected HaMoked’s petitions for the information to be made public, Montell said.

“We have been trying to get an answer to the very simple question of who is the address for a response to the status of Gaza detainees,” she said. “We are not able to provide any relief to these families.”

Lost and ‘left behind’

Mahmood Abu Hani, the singer, made it safely from Gaza City to Nuseirat in the center of the enclave early in the war. Last month he tried to return home, and vanished.

“He said people were going home as there were no soldiers on the way,” said his sister, Haleema Abu Hani. He “left Gaza City without any clothes or anything. It was winter and he was sleeping in a tent.”

He left around 8 a.m. Somewhere past Wadi Gaza, which divides the enclave’s northern and southern regions, his phone died or was turned off. His family has heard nothing from him since.

There have been reunions, too, amid the chaos of war.

For a nerve-racking month, Shady al-Hasoumy said, the family feared the worst for his 10-year-old nephew Yousef. The third-grader was separated from his family Nov. 18 at the chaotic Netzarim checkpoint.

The family continued south. The scared boy headed back north.

But “the people around him tried to help,” al-Hasoumy said. A family took Yousef in. After a month of calls between communication outages, the Hasoumys found him.

Two more months passed before the boy could make it safely to Rafah and reunite with his family, Shady said.

In that span, more people went missing.

“With every [Israeli military] ground entry into areas, we receive hundreds of appeals for missing family members,” Bassal said.

Ziad Sabah, 23, disappeared early Feb. 13 in Deir el-Balah, in central Gaza. He was “bored and wanted to take a walk,” said his father, Mohammed.

Ziad has schizophrenia, his father said, and his symptoms worsened after he was pulled from the rubble of a strike in November. Now the family wonders: Did he get lost? Was he aggressive at a checkpoint? Is he even still alive?

Similar questions torment the al-Masry family.

Haitham, 17, left the U.N. school in Rafah where the family was sheltering on Feb. 11 to sell cigarettes at a market, his father Mohammed said. He never returned.

A Post reporter was the first person to call about his son, al-Masry said last week.

“Do you have any news?”