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Over two dozen Palestinian bodies withheld by Israel in October

Israel refuses to hand over bodies of alleged Palestinian attackers, despite appeals from families
Israeli officials cover the body of an alleged Palestinian attacker in Jerusalem on 17 October 2015 (AA)

Israel is withholding the bodies of at least 28 Palestinians who have been killed since the beginning of October.

The 28 bodies are held at the Abu Kabir Forensic institute in Tel Aviv, infamously known as the place where an Israeli doctor harvested organs and body parts from Palestinian bodies without seeking permission from their families.

Earlier this month, the Knesset agreed to the proposal put forth by the Israeli internal security minister Gilad Erdan to not hand over the bodies of Palestinians who were allegedly involved in stabbing attacks to their families.

“The terrorist’s family turns the funeral into a demonstration of support for terrorism and incitement to the murder,” said Erdan.

The Knesset is also studying Erdan’s suggestion to bury those Palestinians in the notorious cemeteries of numbers.

Secret cemeteries

These cemeteries are secret locations where Israel buries Palestinians who were involved in armed combat against Israelis. Their graves are marked with small metal plates, each carrying a number, hence the name.

The bodies are also kept as bargaining chips in future prisoner exchanges.

The number of these cemeteries is not officially disclosed by Israel, or their whereabouts. Two of the cemeteries’ locations have been found out to be the Amiad Cemetery close to Safed in the north of the country, and Jisr Adam Cemetery in the Jordan Valley.

In 2013 and 2014, Israel released bodies as a sign of goodwill once the negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority resumed.

This led to the speculation, as reported last year, that there were as many as five number cemeteries.

In many cases, the conditions that the buried bodies are in- such as poorly installed metal plates that become dislodged in heavy storms- lead to the loss of the only remaining means of identification and other crucial information such as the date they died.

Over 200 bodies not returned to their families

It is estimated that Israel is withholding 268 bodies, including this month’s count, in total, stretching back to decades. The bodies include Iraqi, Jordanian and Moroccan fighters.

As recently as 2014, 19 bodies from Gaza during the 2014 Israeli offensive on the coastal strip are held, in addition to the bodies of Uday and Ghassan Abu Jamal, the two cousins who attacked a Jerusalem synagogue in November last year.

Salwa Hammad, from the Palestinian national campaign to retrieve martyrs, said that a letter was sent to the Israeli military governor in the Bet Il settlement north of Ramallah to release the bodies of the Palestinians killed in October, but received no response.

“Within the committee, we hold meetings with consuls of different countries and the UN office so that they could pressure Israel into releasing the bodies,” Hammad told Middle East Eye. “They have all condemned this Israeli policy.”

“Nine of the bodies are from Jerusalem, and 15 from Hebron,” Hammad expounded. “One is from the Naqab (Negev desert) and one from Jenin. Two are from Qatna, a village northwest of Jerusalem.”

‘Collective punishment’

In some cases, Israeli authorities summon the families to identify the bodies of their sons or daughters, and are told that this is the last time they will see them. The bodies are usually stripped of clothes on the scene of attack and placed in black body bags.

Emad al-Faqih, the brother of 23 year old Omar al-Faqih who was shot and killed on 17 October at the Qalandiya checkpoint, said that from the Israeli side, there was no information on releasing the bodies. In a statement, the Israeli army said that Faqih tried to stab a soldier.

“The Israeli [medics] called my father the next day to identify Omar’s body,” Emad told Middle East Eye. “They said nothing about terms or conditions for the release. When my father asked them about taking the body back with him they said this is a political decision that they are not part of.”

Omar al-Faqih, whose family found out after his death that he won first place in the union of Palestinian universities’ championship tennis tournament, had graduated two years earlier with honours in banking and finance from Birzeit University.

According to his mother, he was saving up in order to get married. Omar’s father refuses to believe the Israeli army’s version of events, saying that the army’s refusal to release videos of his son’s killing, especially in an area under heavy surveillance, is suspect to say the least.

Despite following up with the Palestinian Authority liaison departments and the Israeli civil and military coordination offices, Emad expressed his frustration at the lack of response.

“Withholding the bodies is well known as collective punishment that Israel practices, and it is a senseless policy. It goes against the interests of the occupation,” he said. “I don’t understand why they are doing this. This only riles up people more and does not serve to calm the situation, unlike what they claim.”

Israel’s tenacity on withholding Palestinian bodies

On Tuesday, thousands of Palestinians protested against Israel’s detention of the- up until that day- 11 bodies that were allegedly involved in stabbing attacks in Hebron.

The families asserted that they will not accept the release of their children’s bodies individually, but rather that the release and handing over of their bodies should take place at the same time in one go.

On Wednesday, Israel reiterated its refusal to hand over the bodies from Jerusalem to their families, but Salwa Hammad is optimistic that the anger on the streets will force the Israeli authorities to change their minds.

Ayman al-Aseeli, the father of Bayan al-Aseeli, 16, who was shot by Israeli forces in Hebron on 17 October told al-Araby al-Jadeed on the same day that requests to different groups such as the Red Cross and various legal organisations to pressure Israel to release his daughter’s body have all been in vain.

 “They all stated that the decision to release the bodies of martyrs is in Israel’s hands only,” Aseeli said.

As of 28 October, Israel is withholding the bodies of 15 Palestinians from Hebron. The Aseeli family are living through rough days, waiting to see whether they could bury their daughter’s body or not. Ayman cannot wrap his head around the fact that his daughter is dead unless he buries her, to give himself and the rest of the family closure. His wife simply won’t believe that Bayan is gone.

“I am tired,” Ayman said, as tears ran down his face. “I want my daughter back. I want to touch her and see her and tell her goodbye. I want to know if she died from one bullet or ten.”

The Palestinian Authority has not, to Hammad’s knowledge, made any moves to pressure or call on Israel to release the bodies. Emad al-Faqih was more equivocal in his opinion of the PA, calling them a “failure”.

“It’s like they are not concerned with taking this issue up, and if they do it’s in a trivial way,” he stated. “We’re calling on any officials, local and international, to pressure the Israeli occupation to return the bodies.”

“This is a humanitarian issue. Why hasn’t there been intervention from countries to pressure Israel? International law and the Geneva Conventions have all criticised this practice. It is obvious that this is a violation of human rights.”

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