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'Withholding his body is another suffering': Palestinian family fight for son's remains

Mohammad Hreiz, 16, was killed by Israeli forces in unclear circumstances last month - and his family is now struggling to bury him
Posters of Mohammad Hreiz cover the walls of Deir Abu Meshaal (MEE/Shatha Hammad)
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Ramallah, occupied West Bank

Israeli authorities are withholding the body of a 16-year-old Palestinian who was killed by Israeli forces in unclear circumstances during a West Bank raid two weeks ago - with his family fearful that they will be barred from burying their son.

Mohammad Hreiz, from the village of Deir Abu Meshaal in the central occupied West Bank, succumbed to his wounds on 20 August, a day after Israeli forces opened fire at him and two of his friends.

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Israeli forces have reportedly claimed that Mohammad - who was initially identified as Mohammad Matar - and his friends had laid tyres on the ground in order to set them on fire.

However, a UN report cited Palestinian eyewitnesses as saying that neither clashes nor tyre burning were ongoing at the time.

Mohammad was seriously injured in the incident, and detained by Israeli soldiers, while his friends managed to escape after sustaining minor to moderate injuries.

According to his family, Mohammad succumbed to his wounds alone, without his parents by his side.

Still reeling from the shock of losing their child, the Hreiz family now has to deal with the added grief of knowing his body now lies in an Israeli mortuary cabinet, and may remain there indefinitely, after Israeli authorities doubled down on its policy of body confiscation this week.

‘Is this your son?’

“He didn’t use to stay out late,” Mohammad’s mother, Nasra Hamdan, told Middle East Eye.

On 19 August, she noticed that her son was still not home.

“I started to look for and ask about him. I thought that he was playing with his friends, before we received the news that he was injured by Israeli fire,” she said.

On the night when Mohammad was shot, an Israeli officer in charge of intelligence in villages west of Ramallah - known under the moniker of Captain Omari - wrote on Facebook an ominous post: “Those who'll play with cats must expect to be scratched.”

Despite fear that he could have been killed, the Hreiz family still had hope that he would be alive in Israeli custody.

But they say they were informed of his death in a brutal way.

“The [Israeli] army called me and asked me to come to Nilin checkpoint to confirm Mohammad's identity,” his father, Daher Hreiz, told MEE. “The soldier coldly turned his computer screen and showed me Mohammad dead, then asked me: ‘Is this your son Mohammad?’

“Then he asked me to leave.”

'I often gazed at him while he was asleep'

One of five siblings, Mohammad’s family remembers him as a quiet child who loved to play, but who also worked with his father in construction to help provide for his family.

Hamdan told MEE she had often had scary, passing thoughts that her son might end up killed by Israeli forces like countless other Palestinian boys.

'We kept waiting for him, but he never came back'

- Salem Zahran, friend of Mohammad Hreiz

“I often gazed at him while he was asleep and thought: ‘Mohammad looks like the martyrs on television’ - but I used to dismiss the idea and pray that I did not lose him,” she said. “I was afraid they would detain him, but never expected to lose him.”

Mohammad’s friends said that they would keep visiting his family’s home until his body is released back to his family.

"We were together on the day before he was gone,” Salem Zahran told MEE. “He told us that he would come back and meet us at night... We kept waiting for him, but he never came back."

Dozens of bodies in Israeli morgues

Two weeks later, Mohammad’s family is still prevented from seeing or taking his body. Israel keeps the bodies of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces as a punitive measure it claims to act as a deterrent against attacks, and to use as leverage in negotiations.

While the confiscation of remains had in recent years been limited to Palestinians believed to belong to the Hamas movement, following an Israeli security cabinet decision on Wednesday, bodies of all slain Palestinians accused of staging attacks on Israelis are now withheld - 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," Israeli Defence Minister Benny Grantz said justifying the move.

'Mohammad was killed by the [Israeli] army’s bullets, we do not need more details. Our only request is that they hand over his body'

- Daher Hreiz, Mohammad's father

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

While the confiscation of bodies has been ongoing since 1967, Israel has ramped up its policy since a wave of unrest in 2015.

The bodies of scores of Palestinians killed over the past five years are believed to be currently kept in Israeli morgues.

According to the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s (PLO) Committee of Prisoners' and Former Prisoners' Affairs, another 250 bodies of Palestinians are kept in poorly maintained graves in Israel’s so-called “cemeteries of numbers”.

Israeli authorities requested authorisation for an autopsy, but the Hreiz family refused. 

Daher Hreiz, Mohammad's father, is surrounded by his son's friends (MEE)
Daher Hreiz, Mohammad's father, is surrounded by his son's friends (MEE/Shatha Hammad)

Sitting among his son’s friends, who wore shirts bearing Mohammad’s photograph, Daher Hreiz said that he did not trust Israeli authorities.

“Mohammad was killed by the [Israeli] army’s bullets, we do not need more details,” he told MEE. “Our only request is that they hand over his body.”

Salwa Hammad, a coordinator for the National Campaign for Retrieval of the Bodies of Martyrs, told MEE that it was unlikely that the Israeli army would hand over the teenage boy’s body at this time, especially given the recent decision to double down on the policy. 

“The bodies are usually kept in mortuary cabinets in poor conditions and at very low temperatures reaching -75°C,” she explained. “They are [placed] in positions that do not take into account their humanity.” 

'A message'

Following the news of Mohammad’s death, the village of Deir Abu Meshaal erupted in violent confrontations with the Israeli army, during which residents threw stones at Israeli soldiers and settlers’ vehicles. 

Mohammad’s uncle Ibrahim told MEE that the residents’ reaction was “a message” that they would not remain silent.

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“The [Israeli] army could have just arrested the three boys who did not pose any threat to the lives of soldiers carrying weapons,” he said.

“They could have arrested them... but instead they preferred to shoot them, and this was done deliberately with the aim of intimidating villagers.”

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Israeli forces have killed 19 Palestinian in the West Bank since the beginning of 2020, injuring 81 others in the territory between 11 and 24 August alone.

Mohammad’s mother says that Israel’s refusal to hand over her son’s body compounded their grief.

“Withholding his body is another suffering,” Hamdan said. “All I want today is for them to hand over his body to us so that I can kiss him and bury him in a cemetery to be able to visit him.”

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.