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Israel approves policy of withholding bodies of all slain Palestinians

Security cabinet passes motion expanding the policy to all Palestinians killed in alleged attacks, in violation of international law
Israeli forces secure the scene of an alleged attack in the central occupied West Bank on 2 September 2020 (Reuters)

Israel will now withhold the bodies of all slain Palestinians accused of staging attacks on Israelis, not just those said to be Hamas members, following a security cabinet decision on Wednesday.

Israel has long been criticised by human rights advocates for its policy of withholding the bodies of Palestinians its forces killed during alleged attacks on its citizens.

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Defence Minister Benny Gantz requested that the policy, which Israel says is used as a deterrent, be extended to all Palestinians, regardless of their political affiliation or whether the alleged attack led to any Israeli casualties.

"Refusal to return the bodies of terrorists is part of our commitment of maintaining the security of Israeli citizens, and of course to bring [dead or missing soldiers] home. I hope our enemy understands and internalises the message well," he said.

Legal rights organisation Adalah denounced the cabinet decision on Wednesday.

"The Israeli security cabinet’s decision to withhold the bodies of Palestinians is extremely problematic and is driven clearly by motivations for vengeance,” the statement read. “The policy of using human bodies as bargaining chips violates the most basic universal values and international law, which prohibit cruel and inhuman treatment.”

Israel holds the remains of hundreds of Palestinian dating back to 1967, kept in morgues or otherwise buried in unkempt graves in what is known as the cemetery of numbers.

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It does so in contravention of international law, with the Geneva Convention stating that parties of an armed conflict must bury each other’s dead honourably.

Israel says it keeps the bodies to use as leverage in negotiations with Palestinians, although some are returned to their families following legal action.

Responding to a petition of six Palestinian families, Israel’s High Court ruled in September 2019 that it was legal for the military to confiscate bodies of alleged attackers.

In 2017, court briefly ruled that the policy was illegal, before the decision was overturned.

In November, Gantz’s predecessor Naftali Bennett ordered the military not to release any Palestinian bodies to their families, regardless of their affiliation or the nature of the alleged attack.

However, later cabinet discussions resulted in some bodies of minors being handed over.

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