People are seen walking amid the rubble of destroyed buildings.

Gathering at the scene of a building that was reduced to rubble after a strike in Gaza City this month.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Gaza has become a 140-square-mile graveyard, each destroyed building another jagged tomb for those still buried within.

The most recent health ministry estimate for the number of people missing in Gaza is about 7,000. But that figure has not been updated since November. Gaza and aid officials say thousands more have most likely been added to that toll in the weeks and months since.

The piles of debris have been multiplying ever since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, killing about 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. Israel began its retaliatory war, and the number of search-and-rescue operations also soared.

After airstrikes, a small crowd of would-be rescuers gathers. In Instagram videos, the searchers can be seen clambering over and onto the dusty wreckage of homes and buildings to dig.

But hopes dwindle quickly. The people they are looking for are usually found dead beneath the wreckage — days, weeks or even months later.

The buried make up a shadow death toll in Gaza, a leaden asterisk to the health ministry’s official tally of more than 31,000 dead, and an open wound for families who hope against hope for a miracle.

Most families have accepted that their missing are dead, and it is unclear how much of the estimate of those unaccounted for is already reflected in the official death toll. The continuing shelling, crossfire and airstrikes often make it too dangerous to sift through the wreckage for the bodies. Other times, relatives are too far away to do so, having separated from the rest of their families in the search for somewhere safer to go.

Photographs that have emerged of Gaza’s rubble heaps testify to families’ intention to recover the dead someday: “Omar Al Riyati and Osama Badawi are under the rubble,” reads the spray paint on a tarp draped across the door of one blown-out building.

When a multistory building collapses, it is impossible to comb the hill of debris without heavy machines or fuel to power them. Often, neither is available.

Gaza has been under a debilitating blockade jointly enforced by Israel and Egypt since Hamas took control of the strip in 2007, and the types of equipment typically used to rescue people after earthquakes and other events of mass destruction are largely forbidden to enter the territory.

Calling 101, the Gaza equivalent of 911, is of little use either. Communications networks are weak, erratic or nonfunctional.

Reporting for The New York Times; — Vivian YeeIyad AbuheweilaAbu Bakr Bashir and Ameera Harouda Reporting from Cairo, Istanbul, London and Doha, Qatar. Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo.