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WWI cemetery in crowded Gaza serves as park for locals

March 26, 2013 11:59 A.M. (Updated: April 4, 2013 11:20 A.M.)
GAZA CITY (Ma'an) -- A cemetery by definition is a tract of land specifically designated as a burial ground, where bodies are interred and identified by tombstones so relatives can visit their loved ones.

Not so in the crowded Gaza Strip, where some cemeteries serve a completely different purpose.

Gaza City, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, is home to five cemeteries dating back to World War 1, known locally to Gazans as "Cemeteries of the English."

The largest of these cemeteries is around 20,000 square meters and serves as a park for locals due to its grassy areas full of colorful flowers and orderly tombstones.

At the southern entrance there is a five-meter high monument coated in marble.

The cemetery received its local name from the fact that the majority of those buried in the colorful garden area were British soldiers killed fighting armies of the Ottoman empire during World War 1.

The British army was then under the command of General Edmund Allenby, who managed to break the defensive Beersheba-Gaza line in the third battle of Gaza.

"Some of the visitors use the cemetery as a place for entertainment and play, though the people in charge of the cemetery confirm it is not a park despite the fact that it is open for everybody," the cemetery guard told a Ma'an.

Students also use the cemetery as a quiet place to study and prepare for their university or school work. "I come to the cemetery when we have power cuts at home, so I can finish my homework," Shihab Khalid from Nuseirat refugee camp said.

The cemetery guard, known locally as Abu Muhammad, says he takes care of everything in the burial ground, including cleaning, watering and trimming plants. He has worked in the cemetery since 1987.

"The cemetery is under direct control of the British Commonwealth," he told Ma’an, pointing to a memorial coated with marble.

A huge sign on the front wall in both Arabic and English explains that the ground was an endowment by the Palestinian people to serve as a memorial for Allied fighters who were killed in World War 1.

"The cemetery also has 21 graves of Indian Muslims, and three graves of Algerians," Abu Muhammad said, noting that the British government funds all expenses for the cemetery and four others in Gaza.

"Family members of the soldiers buried in the cemetery come to visit them occasionally, as well as Commonwealth officials and European Union officials."

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