Israel holding bodies of Palestinians as bargaining chips

Palestinians call on Israel to transfer the bodies of slain Palestinians in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, April 2017.

Ahmad Al-Bazz ActiveStills

Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, has passed a law that allows Israeli police to withhold the bodies of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces until their families agree to preconditions on funeral arrangements.

The law, voted in by the Knesset last Wednesday, applies to Palestinian citizens of Israel and those living in East Jerusalem, but not to Palestinians in the rest of the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip, which are under Israeli military rule.

The legislation was passed despite an Israeli high court ruling last year which determined that police have no legal authority to withhold bodies, and that doing so is a violation of basic rights.

“The holding of bodies and preventing their immediate burial is a violation of both Israeli and international law,” the human rights group Adalah stated last week.

The high court ruling over the holding of bodies came after Adalah filed a petition on behalf of the families of three Palestinians killed during a shooting attack on police at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem last July.

The court ruled that police must return bodies of slain Palestinians to their families for burial within 30 hours, and at least two hours before their funerals. The court allowed police to “set conditions according to which the funerals may be held,” Adalah stated.

A massive, celebratory crowd attended the nighttime burial of the three young Palestinian citizens of Israel killed during the deadly ambush on police outside the Jerusalem mosque compound last July. Held in the town of Umm al-Fahm during the midst of celebrations after Israel backed down from additional restrictions at the mosque following the shooting two weeks earlier, the funeral resembled a victory rally.

Israel’s public security minister Gilad Erdan, who has described such scenes as “an exhibition of support for terror and incitement to murder,” claimed that the Umm al-Fahm funeral inspired copycat attack plots.

Dozens of bodies withheld

Israel has used that argument to try and justify the delayed transfer – in some cases lasting several months – of the bodies of dozens of Palestinians killed during the course of actual and alleged attacks on Israelis in the occupied West Bank since October 2015.

In many of those cases, Israel has stipulated that the bodies be buried at night immediately after the transfer of the remains. Affected families have protested the measure, saying it prevents them from burying their relatives according to tradition and prohibits them from requesting an official autopsy.

Additional conditions have included paying deposits and restricting the number of participants in the funeral.

The Israeli government has openly admitted that it seeks to hold the bodies of some slain Palestinians as bargaining chips to pressure Hamas to return the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza.

Hamas claims to hold the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed during the military’s invasion of Gaza in summer 2014, in addition to two Israeli civilians who voluntarily entered the besieged territory.

Israel’s high court prevented the state from returning the body of Ismail Abu Riyala, a Gaza fisher killed by the Israeli navy last month, after the family of Hadar Goldin, an Israel soldier whose body is believed to be held in Gaza, filed a petition on the matter.

The remains of Abu Riyala, killed on 25 February, were finally transferred on Wednesday.

The families of both soldiers believed to be held in Gaza called on Israel to reject requests to assist in the recovery of Palestinian fighters who went missing after Israel detonated a tunnel in Gaza last October.

Israel had conditioned the recovery of the missing fighters on Hamas releasing information about Israelis being held in Gaza.

Yoav Mordechai, the head of COGAT, the bureaucratic arm of Israel’s military occupation, stated at the time that Israel “will not allow for locating the terrorists in the tunnel without progress on the issue of missing and captive Israelis.”

Bargaining chips

Israel is currently holding the bodies of 17 Palestinians killed by its forces, some for nearly two years. The high court has permitted Israel to hold the bodies until a hearing on the issue scheduled for July.

Israel is additionally believed to have buried more than 250 Palestinian combatants killed since 1967 in secret “cemeteries of numbers.”

Palestinian media reported this week that Israel announced that it would soon transfer the remains of Yasin Omar al-Saradih.

Al-Saradih, 35, died after he was shot in the stomach by soldiers during a raid in the West Bank city of Jericho last month.

Eighteen Palestinians have been killed by Israeli occupation forces and security guards so far this year. Two Israelis were killed by Palestinians in the West Bank during the same period.

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Maureen Clare Murphy

Maureen Clare Murphy's picture

Maureen Clare Murphy is the managing editor of The Electronic Intifada and lives in Chicago.