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Palestinian families fight for relatives' remains held by Israel

A recent Supreme Court ruling has rubber-stamped Israel’s policy of withholding the bodies of Palestinians killed by its security forces.

By Miriam Deprez

Palestinian women mourn during the funeral of Hadeel Awwad in Qalandiya refugee camp, December 18, 2015 (Activestills.org). Israel had held onto Hadeel's body for almost a month.

Palestinian women mourn during the funeral of Hadeel Awwad in Qalandiya refugee camp, December 18, 2015. Israel had held onto Hadeel’s body for almost a month. (Activestills.org)

Mohammad Elayyan discovered through a Facebook post that his 22-year-old son, Bahaa, had been shot dead by Israeli forces after allegedly carrying out a stabbing and shooting attack in East Jerusalem in October 2015. It would be another 325 days before he saw the body.

“From that moment on, the agony and the long journey of struggle and pursuit of getting my son out of an Israeli refrigerator to be buried began,” Elayyan recalled, as he joined scores of other Palestinian families fighting to have their relatives’ remains returned.

The Israeli government has, since 1967, applied a policy of withholding the bodies of Palestinians killed by its security forces. There are currently more than 250 bodies being held in Israeli morgues and cemeteries, according to the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC), which is currently fighting for the release of 116 bodies.

This policy has stopped and started several times over the decades, in response to widespread criticism. However, a Supreme Court ruling handed down on Sept. 9 declared that Israel now has the legal right to hold on to the bodies of Palestinian suspects, “based on considerations that take into account state security, civil order, and the need to negotiate for the return of the bodies of Israeli soldiers,” stated Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. The organization considers the ruling one of the Supreme Court’s most “extreme” since Israel’s establishment in 1948.

The ruling contravenes the Geneva Convention, which states that parties involved in an armed conflict must bury the deceased “if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged and that their graves are respected, properly maintained, and marked in such a way that they can always be recognized.”

According to Issam Aruri, director of JLAC, the bodies are used as bargaining chips with Palestinian political factions such as Hamas, who are currently withholding the bodies of two Israeli soldiers killed during the 2014 Gaza war.



“The policy was decided that they will keep the bodies for [a] possible exchange of Israeli soldier bodies that are held in Gaza,” said Aruri. “Those bodies have only been held since 2014, but the Israelis [have been] keeping bodies for 52 years of occupation. They don’t give information about those bodies, or where they are held. For some families, they don’t know if their beloved ones are dead or alive.”

Aruri believes the ruling goes beyond security and leverage, to one designed to punish family members of those who carry out attacks against Israel. He explained that in Judaism, a dead body is highly respected, adhering to strict religious burial ceremonies, which are not afforded to Palestinians whose bodies are withheld. “So, in this sense, they don’t consider Palestinians as equal human beings,” Aruri said.

The majority of bodies are being held in the infamous “cemetery of numbers” — named after the numbering system used to identify the graves. Some bodies have been there since 1967, withheld in the aftermath of the Six Day War.

Elayyan, a lawyer and activist, launched a grassroots campaign after his son was killed, bringing together families of slain Palestinians in calling on Israel to return their relatives’ remains. Although his son was released, Elayyan said he won’t rest until all the families concerned can bury their dead with dignity.

“I go to all the funerals and burials of all the martyrs that are held,” he said. “It’s always the same in each one of these cases. The pain, the suffering, the agony of the families, the grief, this is almost identical in every family.”

But having the body released is only the first step. To have his son Bahaa returned, Elayyan first had to agree to certain conditions, including paying a NIS 20,000 ($5,680) bond. “It’s as if we bought the body of our son,” recounted Elayyan.

Zaka rescue personnel carry the bodies of Palestinian attackers at the scene of a shooting and stabbing attack near Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, February 3, 2016. Three Israelis were wounded, two critically and one lightly, after being stabbed by three Palestinian attackers, who were shot and killed by Israeli security forces at the scene. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Zaka rescue personnel carry the bodies of Palestinian attackers at the scene of a shooting and stabbing attack near Damascus Gate, Jerusalem, February 3, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Second, like many other Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, Bahaa’s funeral was held at midnight — a consistent demand by Israeli authorities who say it prevents incitement. Israel also refused to let the family bury him in their village cemetery. Instead, his family was forced to bury him at al-Mujahidin cemetery near the Old City of Jerusalem, with the number of mourners restricted to just 25 people.

Palestinian families say these measures are designed to prevent a dignified burial. Israel defends the policy, arguing it deters violence.

The final condition of release was to relinquish the right to have the body autopsied. Elayyan said he had approached Al Quds University in order to organize his son’s post-mortem examination. When Israeli authorities discovered Elayyan’s intent, however, they refused to release Bahaa’s body for another four months.

The state in which the bodies are returned also hinders examination, due to the long periods spent in a freezer. In 2016, a special UN investigation noted reports that bodies of deceased Palestinians were “stacked on top of each other…[and] often disfigured, sometimes beyond recognition, denying the families the right to accord, with dignity, final religious rites.”

Bahaa’s body was, Elayyan said, almost unrecognizable: after nearly a year in a freezer, his eyes had completely sunken in as if they were missing.

“The most painful [part] in this whole process is the condition of the body. The body would be held in the refrigerator under minus 30-40 degrees celsius, so it’s frozen solid, like an ice cube,” explained Elayyan. “Sometimes when a family receives the body, if it slips out of their hands, it would fall on the ground and break.

“Usually, the family [is] anxious to bury their son or daughter,” Elayyan continued. He then explained families are often dissuaded from performing autopsies as they have no legal recourse available to them. “We do the autopsy, what then?” he said. “What after this? There’s no state to represent you, or to file a case against the Israelis.” He added he has not, to date, received an official police report detailing the circumstances of his son’s death.

In the wake of the Supreme Court ruling, Elayyan said his campaign will now be appealing to international courts, having also been frustrated with the lack of assistance from the Palestinian Authority. “We have now exhausted all the legal remedies provided by the national law of Israel, and now our battle will be taken to another forum, an international forum.”

However hopeless Elayyan said he and the families often feel, it is the fight which gives them strength. “With regard to the pain of the families, whether it’s recent, or from years ago and their families [are] in a numbered graveyard, the pain is the same, it does not elapse with time.

“But the more we do to try to release the bodies, it gives us [the] power to endure the pain.”

Miriam Deprez is an Australian-born freelance journalist and photographer. Follow her on twitter at @m_deprez.

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    1. Itshak Gordine

      Meanwhile 2 Israeli civilians and the body of two soldiers are being held by Hamas terrorists. Jewish families are suffering and everyone does not care.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Firentis

      The families of terrorists are complaining that Israel isn’t treating the bodies of terrorists with respect? Pardon me while I don’t give a crap.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Firentis: Here’s an interview with a former Mossad Personnel Division chief and a former Shin Bet deputy. It seems to me that they are stopping just one millimeter short of saying that the ball is in Israel’s court and Israel needs to make peace with the Palestinians. Does it seem that way to you?

        “He says the only way to prevent the growth of new generations of terrorists is “to give the Palestinians a diplomatic horizon for a better future so many people will not choose the direction of terror.”… Pellman lays out several things the government should do. First, he says that when responding to terrorism, the government should never use arbitrary collective punishment, but should divide between punishing the small areas that have a high density of terror and rewarding the much larger areas that do not….He also says Israel must truly come to terms with Palestinian statehood, as absent a state, “how can they fully control their own public?…Though most of their emphasis is on the West Bank, they also support reducing tension with Gaza by rehabilitating it with an offshore man-made island port.”


        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Why give the “fakestinyan” phantom nation a “diplomatic horizon” ?
          I would better this by giving these so-called “fakestinyans” a real “physical horizon”.
          Their horizon will be radically changed when they are back home in Amman !

          Reply to Comment
        • Firentis

          When the Palestinians want peace there will be peace.

          These people are trying to prepare Israelis for the possibility that one day the Palestinians will want peace. This is the generous appraisal of their efforts. They represent a group that hasn’t seen an Israeli concession it hasn’t liked. They are so desperate for the possibility of peace that they close their eyes to the reality of the conflict they are engaged in. Or at least pretend to.

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            Oh they want peace alright, just not total surrender to far right schemes. I don’t know why that is so difficult for you to comprehend. I think it’s because you can’t see them as human beings. That’s your problem. Tactical empathy is a minimum prerequisite for intelligent negotiations. It is the Israelis who openly declare, from the Knesset podium and the Netanyahu facebook page that they do not want peace and that no Palestinian state is possible. You write as if you did not know what is public information. Do you listen to your leaders? The real economic equation that applies is: When the cost of the colonizing exceeds its benefits, the Israeli leadership will want peace. The price of the occupation has to be increased by a combination of internal and external factors (what you call foreign interference in domestic affairs but which formulation misses the fact that the occupied territories are not Israeli territory).

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            No Ben. I am the one that actually sees them as human beings with an ideology that they believe in and are willing to sacrifice for. To you they are just some sort of symbolic underdog onto which you project your leftist view of the world.

            The Palestinians do not want peace with Israel. They want to eliminate Israel. This is the overwhelming position of Palestinian society. Some are willing to tolerate a temporary truce and those are the ones called ‘moderates that seek peace’. This is the reason why it would be suicidal for a Palestinian leader to accept peace negotiations on the basis of two states for two peoples, which is what Abbas explicitly rejected when Obama was president.

            Given this situation I can’t really blame people for not putting much hope in negotiations with the Palestinians, nor can I fault those that propose alternative solutions or approaches. And certainly there is a minority that is against a Palestinian state on principle. The majority doesn’t believe it is feasible or advisable given the aforementioned position of the Palestinians on Israel.

            It doesn’t matter what cost you impose on Israel. There is no chance of successful peace talks with the Palestinians as long as the Palestinians won’t come to terms with the permanent existence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. And without successful peace talks there is no chance of any serious change in the Israeli approach to the West Bank. So you are stuck with the status quo. The key to changing the status quo rests in the hands of the Palestinians. The sooner they actually want peace the faster it will happen. In the meantime they can continue sacrificing for their genocidal ideology for all I care. It will change nothing.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            I think this falls back on the Netanyahu-crafted propaganda talking point-trick that (to paraphrase): “They only want to destroy us. Everybody knows. That they won’t publicly sign on to my (deliberately two state solution-killing) “Jewish state” supremacy trick is evidence that they want to destroy us (even though in my heart I know this is not true), therefore we get to annex all of the West Bank and will do so eventually, as I have said on public TV. And it doesn’t matter that Abu Mazen and the PA have explicitly disavowed the idea that the issue is Jews–versus Israeli settlers who for some strange reason I only allow to be Jews–I don’t care about fudging that because my base fervently believes what it believes, and as you know, honesty is far far down my list of values that I uphold.”

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            In addition, you have never treated them as human beings with human rights, but only as a faceless, dehumanized horde with whom, conveniently, no compromise can be made because any compromise and coming to terms and any attempt to solve things leads to “the destruction of ‘Israel'” (in your mind). Feigned helplessness, always convenient for an occupier with an overwhelming power imbalance. And it also won’t do to trot out the “leftist view” retort, which in this context means, basically, that nothing Israel does can ever be wrong because we are so special and our project is so special that the usual rules for human behavior and human decency do not apply.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            Blah blah blah. Why are these Jews so insistent on having their own state? If only they accept being a stateless persecuted minority again there can be peace. No, wait, I mean two states, with neither actually being Jewish. How dare they accuse me of wanting Israel eliminated? How dare they set as a condition for peace talks that the outcome actually consists of two states, on of which is [OMG HOW DARE THEY??!!??] Jewish? They are such a brainwashed cult these people. It must be the great puppet master Bibi that has thus inculcated such poisonous ideas as national self-determination in their poor weak minds. How dare they expect peace talks to commence from a place where the other side accepts that it permanently failed to destroy their country. What kind of peace is it if the Arabs actually have to accept that all their attempts to destroy Israel failed and they have to live in peace next to a Jewish state. Where is the human decency? Won’t somebody please invade and put these uppity Jews in their rightful place in the world?

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “…uppity Jews…”

            Listen to yourself. You are setting up the term “uppity” to be an aspersion cast against Jews who insist on establishing, against the declared intent of the founders at the time the western powers signed on to the Balfour Declaration, an ethnosupremacist state, justified in your version by a thoroughly one-sided grievance collecting in terms of what “they” (cast in this drama as a vastly over-generalized, evil horde) did to “us” (cast as an innocent set of eternal pure victims/noble heroes who never did anything at all the “them”)–and at the expense of the most basic human rights of an entire other people in the land in real places with real homes and real farms and real olive groves and real roots there. All cast in the sheerest black-and-white cartoon terms with you as eternal and exclusive victim. All meant to shift the goal post of meanings to make Jews uniquely entitled to ethnosupremacism. All meant to normalize the occupation-annexation-colonization project.

            When people of good will stopped others from calling black people asserting their human rights “uppity” they never implied that those black people deserved their own “black state” versus a “white state” within America, only that they join other Americans in a democratic state with full political and human rights just like everybody else.

            The theatrical set piece and morality play you have written here is thoroughly twisted.

            Reply to Comment
          • Firentis

            Look at the uppity Jew insisting on the Jewish right to self-determination. Lets tell him that he doesn’t deserve it. That in fact he must submit to being a minority in every country. I shall inform him exactly what he deserves because this I know as his superior and that it isn’t a state of his own. And I shall act to deprive him of the state he has. And I shall wrap myself in some sort of blanket of righteousness while I preach the destruction of his country because his people are surely underserving of the right to self-determination. And how dare he insist on the right to his own country?!? Oh why can’t I convince these people that clearly they are wrong and that they are not a people deserving of a country? Surely they must be a brain-washed cult because I know better.


            Do you ever listen to yourself? You sound like one of those Christian missionaries that were sent to educate the heathen in the proper way of thought and behavior. You reek of imperialistic religious fervor.

            Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            “Look at the uppity Jew insisting on the Jewish right to self-determination. Lets tell him that he doesn’t deserve it….”

            But that’s just the thing. In a bait ans switch, you’ve now again changed the meaning of “uppity” to mean insisting on “right of self determination” but no one here ever denied Israel that right, it is Israel that is denying the Palestinians that right. So the proper sentence is “Look at the uppity Palestinian insisting on the Palestinian right to self-determination. Lets tell him that he doesn’t deserve it”–which in fact is what Netanyahu tells the Palestinians all the time, in broad daylight, on national TV, on facebook. For years now. This is what you mean, whether you know it or not, when you insist you are being deprived of “the right to [our] own country.” Right wing Israel doesn’t want “self-determination” short of a Jewish nation state style erasing of 20% of its inhabitants one one side of the green line and it doesn’t ever want the green line to exist in the first place, wanting to define “self-determination” as nothing short of possession of 95% of the land from the river to the sea. Israel could easily have a two state solution with self-determination and a vast Jewish majority west of the 67 lines if it really wanted “self-determination,” but Israel does not want that, its wants “self-determination” defined as ethnic and territorial supremacism, with complete submission to that order of things by the other people in the land.

            Reply to Comment
    3. Lewis from Afula

      Don’t return these terrorist bodies.
      Burn them instead – like we did to Eichmann!
      Then scatter the ashes outside our territorial waters.

      Reply to Comment
      • Bruce Gould

        @Lewis: Soon all the Fakestinians will be deported to Fakestan, and shortly thereafter Israel’s high tech workers will leave as well (https://www.calcalistech.com/ctech/articles/0,7340,L-3763310,00.html) – maybe the pay is better abroad, or maybe people don’t want to raise their kids in an apartheid state that uses people dead bodies as bargaining chips – who knows? But in any event, a bright future for the Jewish State.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          Israel’s net emigration is now 5000 per annum. Out of 7.1 Million Israeli Jews, this represents an annual emigration rate of about 0.7 per 1000 people. This respectable figure is MUCH LOWER than other OECD countries.

          Your calcalist probably defines “graduates” as those with a degree in a foreign language, “gender studies” and “history of art”.

          Bruce’s problem is that he is still stuck in a 80-90s paradigm where poor Israelis emigrate abroad for a better standard of living.

          Reply to Comment
    4. Firentis

      You are the one that supports the Palestinian rejection of the principle of two states for two peoples. Not me. I am perfectly happy for the Palestinians to have a country, but it won’t come at the expense of my own.

      And you insist on lecturing us uppity Jews that our people’s insistence of actually having our own country (the actual meaning of self-determination for a people) is supremacy that you in your infinite leftist wisdom have chosen to deem us unworthy of.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Now we’re back to your old insistence on “the principle of two states for two peoples”–which is simply another way of stating that the Palestinians need to formally acquiesce to Netanyahu’s deliberate trick meant to foil any two state solution–his insisting on a newly invented sudden critical need for the Palestinians to formally recognize “The Nation State of the Jewish People.” There are many good reasons why this is asking the impossible, why the Palestinians would be the world’s biggest masochistic freiers if they signed on to this concoction. Nothing Israel has ever done to the Palestinians suggest otherwise. To not understand this is a failure of tactical empathy. This is an intractable disagreement you and I have here.

        The shallow trickery Netanyahu is capable of, no, incapable of not perpetrating, has become clear to anyone observing his schemes–carried out at the expense of Israel’s and anyone else’s higher interests–to avoid prosecution in the past few years. (He is exactly like Trump in this regard.) The “Jewish state” ploy he came up with is no different.

        Reply to Comment
        • Lewis from Afula

          The “palestinians” need to accept…
          they never existed.
          do not exist today.
          will never exist.

          Once these diabolical fascistic fanatics accept these facts, peace will achievable.
          Otherwise, the only ending is their mass re-patriation.

          Reply to Comment