RAFAH, Gaza Strip — It was clear from the bodies laid out in the parking lot of the maternity hospital here that it had assumed new duties: No longer a place that welcomed new life, it was now a makeshift morgue.
Other bodies lay in hallways and on the floor of the kitchen at Hilal Emirati Maternity Hospital. In the walk-in cooler, they were stacked three high, waiting for relatives to claim them for burial.
Saturday was the second day of heavy bombardment by Israeli forces on this city on Gaza’s border with Egypt after Israel’s announcement that one of its officers had been captured by Palestinian militants here during a clash.
But early Sunday morning, the Israeli military announced that the officer, Second Lt. Hadar Goldin, 23, was now considered to have been killed in battle.
“It is just an excuse,” said Dr. Abdullah Shehadeh,
director of the Abu Yousef al-Najjar Hospital, the city’s largest. “There is no reason for them to force the women and children of Gaza to pay the price for something that happened on the battlefield.”
After two days of Israeli shelling and airstrikes, central Rafah appeared deserted on Saturday, with shops closed and residents hiding in their homes. The presence of Israeli forces east of the city had caused many to flee west, crowding in with friends and relatives in neighborhoods by the Mediterranean.
More than 120 Palestinians were killed in Rafah alone on Friday and Saturday — the deadliest two days in the city since the war began 25 days ago. Those deaths, and hundreds of injuries, overwhelmed the city’s health care facilities.
Making matters worse, Israeli shells hit the central Najjar hospital on Friday afternoon, Dr. Shehadeh said, leading its employees and patients to evacuate.
To continue receiving patients, his staff members moved to the smaller Kuwaiti Specialized Hospital, although it was ill equipped to handle the large number of people seeking care.
Ambulances screamed into the hospital’s parking lot, where medics unloaded cases onto stretchers sometimes bearing the blood of previous patients. Since the hospital had only 12 beds, the staff members had lined up gurneys outside to handle the overflow.
The city’s central hospital had also housed its only morgue, so its closure created a new problem as the casualties mounted: where to put the bodies.
At the Kuwaiti Specialized Hospital, they were put on the floor of the dental ward under a poster promoting dental hygiene. In a back room lay the bodies of Sadiah Abu Taha, 60, and her grandson Rezeq Abu Taha, 1, who had been killed in an airstrike on their home nearby.
Few people approached the main entrance to the pink-and-white maternity hospital, instead heading around back, where there was a constant flow of bodies. Nearly 60 had been left in the morgue of the central hospital when it closed, so ambulance crews who had managed to reach the site brought back as many bodies as they could carry. Other bodies came from new attacks or were recovered from damaged buildings.
New arrivals were laid out in the parking lot or carried down a ramp to the kitchen, featuring a large walk-in cooler. Some were kept on the ground, and those not claimed right away were added to the pile in the cooler.
Word had spread that the dead were at the maternity hospital, so people who had lost relatives came to talk to the medics or look in the cooler for their loved ones.
One short, sunburned man pointed to the body of a woman wearing pink sweatpants and said she was his sister Souad al-Tarabin.
The medics pulled her out, laid her on a table and wrapped her in white cloth and plastic. Some teenagers helped the man carry her body upstairs and lay it in the back of a yellow taxi. A man in the front seat cradled a small bundle containing the remains of the woman’s 4-year-old son, Anas.
Sitting nearby, Asma Abu Jumain waited for the body of her mother-in-law, who she said had been killed the day before and was in the morgue at the central hospital when it was evacuated.
“She is an old woman,” Ms. Abu Jumain said. “She did nothing wrong.”
The movement of bodies made record-keeping impossible, although Arafat Adwan, a hospital volunteer, tried to jot down names in a small red notebook he kept in his pocket.
He worried that some bodies would remain there for days, because families had been scattered and might not know that their relatives had been killed.
“There are people in here whose families have no idea what happened to them,” he said.
Others knew they had lost relatives but could not find them.
Mohammed al-Banna said an airstrike the morning before had killed nine of his in-laws, including his wife’s father and four of her brothers.
“The aggression here is creating a new generation of youth who want revenge for all the crimes,” he said.
He had looked at the central hospital the day before, to no avail. Then, on Saturday, he received a message sent to local cellphones telling those who had lost relatives to retrieve them from the maternity hospital. He had come right away, but had not found them.
“I’ll keep waiting for their bodies to come in so we can
take them home and bury them,” he said.
Mr. Banna added that he had been too worried to tell his wife what had happened to her family and wanted to break the news to her gradually. Earlier that day, she had told him that she was starting to worry because her father’s cellphone had been switched off all day.
“I told her maybe he has no electricity and his phone is dead,” Mr. Banna said.