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Israel’s decades-long policy of holding Palestinian bodies

Nov. 4, 2015 1:31 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 6, 2015 4:19 P.M.)
Palestinians carry the bodies of five Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces following attempted stabbing attacks during a funeral procession in the West Bank town of Hebron on Oct. 31, 2015 (AFP/Hazem Bader)
By: Emily Mulder

BETHLEHEM (Ma'an) -- Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian dead, and its impact on the living, is being questioned once again as the government continues to withhold the bodies of 22 Palestinians killed following attacks on Israelis during the month of October.

The refusal to turn over the dead to their families -- a policy that Israeli authorities supposedly halted near the end of the Second Intifada -- has provoked controversy among Israeli officials and led tomass protests in the occupied West Bank.

A total of 33 Palestinian bodies were held by Israel during October, and eleven have since been returned, according to the Palestinian National Committee for Retrieving Bodies of Martyrs.

The majority of those being held had killed or injured Israeli military and civilians in attacks, but the actual involvement of others in attacks at the time of their death has been disputed by the United Nations and Amnesty International.

Last week Hebron’s joint funeral of five Palestinians -- all under the age of 18 -- brought thousands of mourners to the streets in what the Israeli leadership termed “a nationalistic event.”

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon -- who initially approved the release last week after the bodies were deemed a “burden not an asset” -- said Sunday that the Palestinian Authority failed to uphold a deal with Israel prohibiting mass funerals for returned bodies, according to Israeli media.

Yaalon reportedly said during a security cabinet meeting that he temporarily decided to stop the turnover of Hebron’s Palestinians, and that if the PA reneged on promises to prevent mass funerals, Israel would not return the remaining bodies and bury them inside of Israel.

Neck deep in popular resentment, any potential capacity of the PA to quell the turnout at funerals would likely result in already billowing frustrations towards the body’s cooperation with Israel.

‘Making them suffer’

The bodies of Palestinians still held from October attacks include 10 from Hebron, 10 from Jerusalem -- including the bodies of four minors -- and one from al-Naqab (Negev), according to Salwa Baker Hammad, spokesperson for the Palestinian National Committee for Retrieving Bodies of Martyrs.

Salwa has watched dozens of Palestinian families over the years appeal to Israel’s high court in efforts to retrieve the remains of their relatives.

She says that despite possible political motives for the policy, the only outcome she has seen is suffering families.

“I met the father of Bayan al-Esseily, the 17-year-old girl from Hebron, before we got the body back. One week before, he was like a crazy man. He told us, ‘I want to see my daughter, I cannot sleep, I cannot eat.’ They made him suffer.”

Salwa said that withholding bodies prevents a Muslim family from adhering to religious tradition regarding burial and prayer, forcing religious transgressions of mourning relatives.

Salwa told Ma’an that she thought the main factor in Israel’s return of 11 bodies thus far was due to international pressure and pressure from local Palestinian communities that demonstrated for their return.

She also said that the young ages of the five Palestinians returned to Hebron last week likely contributed to their release, as well as the fact that two of those handed over were the bodies of Palestinian teenage girls.

“All of the families are saying that the PA could have had negotiations to get the bodies out, but that they don’t actually have any trust in the PA. They think that if they didn’t put any pressure on the PA themselves, they would not do anything at all.”

The 22 remaining families still awaiting the bodies of their loved ones, meanwhile, are at risk of joining hundreds of other Palestinian families that Israel has denied access to relatives’ remains.

Anonymous bodies

Israel has long had “cemeteries for the enemy dead,” also referred to as “cemeteries of numbers,” where Palestinians who died during attacks on Israelis are held in nameless graves marked by numbers.

Around 262 bodies are believed to be held by Israel, not including 19 bodies of Palestinians which were buried inside of Israel during and after the 2014 Gaza war and the 22 still held from October.

While bodies have been buried in the cemeteries since the 1960’s, the policy was fairly inconsistent for its first few decades in practice, according to a joint report by Hamoked and B’Tselem.

After a suicide bombing on a Jewish settlement Netzarim in the Gaza Strip in 1994, Israel began regularly holding the bodies of Palestinian perpetrators.

The attack took place shortly after the First Intifada and would be the first of many, as Palestinian political factions launched an armed resistance against the Israeli occupation during the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005.

At the time, Hamoked and B’Tselem reported that the main motive for the 1994 policy change was the potential it had to punish the orchestrators of attacks, when suicide bombings made it impossible to punish those who actually carried out attacks.

The government also wished to prevent funerals and the societal reverence of the “terrorist” that they instigated, a policy that critics argue has the opposite effect. The potential for using the bodies in future negotiations with Palestinian political groups was also on the table.

In 2004, the policy was reversed for reasons not stated. The state would return bodies to their families on condition of scientific identification, generally involving a DNA test paid for by the family, according to Hamoked.

Amid ongoing appeals by Hamoked and other groups for Israel to return the bodies, several cases have emerged over the years of Israel’s failure to locate bodies held.

Hamoked documented last year fundamental deficiencies of the Israeli security establishment in processing the remains of Palestinians, leading to the appointment of a special commission to the issue, which has yet to be resolved.

In an appeal, the group slammed Israel for its failure in doing the minimum to ensure proper identification of those killed, the marking of their graves, or burial in accordance with the deceased's’ religious rites, all in contravention to international law.

Policy or power play?

Israel’s withholding of bodies of Palestinians who carried out attacks in October marks the highest rate of the policy’s use since the years of the Second Intifada, head of Israeli watchdog Hamoked, Dalia Kerstein, told Ma’an.

The decision was initially pushed by Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and approved by Israeli PM Netanyahu amid other punitive measures against Palestinians frantically put in place as attacks on Israelis increased in October.

Erdan proposed that the bodies of “terrorists” not be returned to their families, and buried in cemeteries inside of Israel.

Salwa and Kerstein both questioned the potential use of the bodies in future Israeli negotiations with the Palestinian Authority.

As recently as last summer, Israel attempted to negotiate the release of Palestinian bodies as well as several Hamas affiliates detained from the Gaza Strip in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas.

The soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, are still in Hamas custody and their families have protested that the Israeli government halt all returns of Palestinian bodies to their families until Hamas turns over their sons.

Also in Israel’s national interest, Salwa and Kerstein noted that the prevention of Palestinian access to bodies has in the past enabled the state to cover over potential cases of wrongdoing by Israeli forces that lead to the individual’s death.

As October marked an increased number of individual Palestinian attacks on Israeli military and civilians, the old trend of withholding bodies that Israel practiced during the Second Intifada is being replicated, Kerstein said.

“It’s the same policy….I wouldn’t say it’s a policy, it’s a game. In policy you would think that someone is really thinking, researching, coming up with a conclusion, but now they are playing a game,” Kerstein told Ma’an.

For the Palestinian families both of those killed and held by Israel in October and the hundreds of bodies held before them, such a game is postponing the acceptance of the death of their loved ones.

In a society accustomed to ongoing arbitrary detention through a legal system that rights groups say is ineffective in carrying out due process for Palestinians, families often reject that their relative has actually been killed -- instead of being held in Israeli jails -- until they see the body.

The withholding of bodies by Israel, meanwhile, amounts to collective punishment for family members who have not committed crimes, Hamoked said.

Asked about political leverage the Palestinian Authority might utilize to enable the return of the bodies, Kerstein said that bodies are generally released by Israel as a gesture largely to “quiet down the Palestinian Authority or the people.”

“Requests from the Palestinian side is of assistance, but if Israel doesn’t want to, then no way. They want to say ‘we are the strong ones and we want everyone to understand that we are the strong ones.’ It’s a game of power.”
Tibi / Tubas
Palestinians are holding Israeli bodies too, just out of hatred, while
Israel's are holding Palestinian bodies to prevent them from becoming a flash-point for new riots and clashes.
04/11/2015 14:28
Carlos / usa
israel is ridiculous! How can a government be so incompetent and evil? Israel would not have the riots if it stopped summarily executing innocent people. While the Al Aqsa situation is important the brulity of israels crimes and lack of prosecution of israeli murderers is the real problem.
04/11/2015 18:34
Colin Wright / USA
Tibi: 'Israel's are holding Palestinian bodies to prevent them from becoming a flash-point for new riots and clashes.' Oh please. The Israelis are holding the bodies because the Zionist notion of good governance is to provoke, humiliate, and enrage as much as possible.
04/11/2015 20:51
outsider / EU
Creepy! Blackmail over corpses.
05/11/2015 11:04
Sam / Canada
not to mention they hold the bodies for harvesting organs
a rabbi even admitted they do that! what a shame and the world is just watching this
05/11/2015 16:08
Outlier / USA
Colin and Sam, please provide examples or be shown a liar. Your call.
05/11/2015 18:02
Without Peace Negotiations / This Status-Quo Will Remain
- "Israeli forces detain 60 Palestinian workers without permits
- Majority of Jerusalem Palestinians detained in 2015 were minors
- Locals raise funds to rebuild demolished home of Palestinian attacker
- Israeli forces level private land to make way for military tower", etc. !!
11/01/2016 15:03
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