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Israel's policy of withholding bodies leaves Palestinian families in limbo

Long denounced as collective punishment, Israel's practice of refusing to return Palestinian dead to their families has ramped up since May
Fatima Hammad prays by the grave dug for her son Mohammad in the occupied West Bank town of Silwad. Israel has refused to return his body (MEE/Shatha Hammad)
By Shatha Hammad in Abu Dis, occupied West Bank

In their unusually calm home, Khaled Yousef Afana, 56, and his wife Khulood, 47, flipped through photo albums of their first-born daughter, Mai, watching her grow from newborn baby to graduation ceremonies with the flip of each page, with room left over for when she would obtain her much anticipated PhD. 

Mai's parents haven't put the album down since June, when they learned that their 29-year-old daughter had been killed and there would be no more pictures to add to the album. 

On the morning of 16 June, Khaled received a call informing him that Israeli forces had shot Mai near the occupied West Bank village of Hizma, northeast of Jerusalem, as she was driving to Ramallah.

The Israeli army claimed that Mai had tried to ram into Israeli soldiers with her vehicle, a version of events her family has categorically rejected. Video footage of the moments after Mai was shot later circulated on social media, showing soldiers preventing paramedics from reaching her.

For close to two months, the Afana family have been living with a twofold pain: that of losing their daughter and their unexpected fight against Israel's withholding of her body, which is preventing them from burying Mai and saying their final goodbyes. 

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Khaled Afana looks through photographs of his daughter Mai in the family home in Abu Dis, near Jerusalem (MEE/Shatha Hammad)
Khaled Afana looks through photographs of his daughter Mai in the family home in Abu Dis, near Jerusalem (MEE/Shatha Hammad)

Israel's long-standing policy of withholding bodies of Palestinians killed while allegedly attempting to attack Israeli targets has been used on and off for decades. After unofficially halting its policy of withholding bodies in 2004, Israel resumed the practice six years ago.

According to the Palestinian National Campaign to Retrieve the Bodies of Martyrs, Israel has withheld the bodies of 81 Palestinians since 2015, holding them in morgue freezers. As a popular uprising unfolded across Palestine in May and June this year, the policy once again came back to the fore, with 11 dead Palestinians withheld since.

'We live in a whirlpool'

The exact circumstances surrounding Mai's death remain unknown, but her parents remain adamant that their daughter could not have attempted to carry out an attack.

'I cannot think about anything besides Mai and the need to recover her body'

- Khulood Afana, a bereaved mother

Khaled told Middle East Eye that Mai was heading to Ramallah for a medical appointment that morning, and had called a friend on the way in order to meet for breakfast while she was in town.

"We believe it is far-fetched that Mai was trying to carry out an operation. We think she may have taken a side road to avoid the traffic, and was surprised to find that it was a road designated for settlers," the father said. 

Adding to the confusion, eyewitnesses later told the family that an Israeli settler on a tractor, not the army, had shot and killed Mai, with Israeli forces only arriving on the scene later.

Israeli authorities have so far refused to respond to the Afana family's questions about their daughter's body, and refuse to hand it over.

Mai was married and had a baby daughter. After obtaining a bachelor's degree in psychology from Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, she completed a master's at the same university, and was doing a PhD at Mutah University in Jordan at the time of her death. She would drive across the border to attend classes several times a week. 

"Mai did not know the impossible. She was a combative and ambitious girl who built her dreams with all there is of strength and challenge," Khaled said. "She dreamed of becoming an ambassador to represent Palestine across the world one day, and I was sure that she would achieve this dream."

Khulood remembers her daughter as being extremely supportive of her parents, despite her own busy academic and family life. 

"She never left us," Khulood told MEE. "She would visit me every day, and would help her siblings by encouraging them to study. She was not just a daughter to me; she was a friend and a sister." 

After striving to provide a decent, normal life for his daughter, all Khaled seeks today is to recover her body and give her a proper funeral. 

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"We are in great pain, and we are unable to comprehend her continued detention inside a freezer," he said. "We live in a whirlpool, with no stability or calmness. By killing Mai and withholding her body, they killed our life as a family. Our lives will never be normal again."

In addition to setting up a sit-in tent in their hometown of Abu Dis, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, the Afanas have staged demonstrations every week at the entrance of the illegal Israeli settlement of Maaleh Adumim, demanding the return of Mai's body.

"I miss her all the time," Khulood said. "I cannot think about anything besides Mai and the need to recover her body."

Waiting by an empty grave

In the town of Silwad, northeast of Ramallah, Fatima Hammad shares the Afanas' pain. 

On 14 May, the Israeli army shot and killed her son, 30-year-old Mohammad Ruhi Hammad, near the settlement of Ofra, neighbouring Silwad, alleging that he had attempted to carry out a car-ramming attack.

The family quickly prepared a grave for Mohammad, unaware that the army would decide to withhold his body. Nearly three months later, the grave remains open. Fatima regularly visits the empty site, filled with fallen leaves and flowers, while her son's body remains in a freezer in an Israeli morgue.

"It was the second day of Eid when Mohammad left the house after having breakfast with me," Fatima said. "Two hours later, I received news of his martyrdom. It was shocking and painful news."

She does not rule out the possibility that her son may have tried to carry out an attack, saying that he had been very affected by the violent Israeli suppression of protests in occupied East Jerusalem and the deadly 11-day war on Gaza

However, Mohammad had a future to look forward to: he was preparing for his wedding and had built a home for his wife and future family.

Fatima Hammad holds a poster of her son in the occupied West Bank town of Silwad (MEE/Shatha Hammad)
Fatima Hammad holds a poster of her son in the occupied West Bank town of Silwad (MEE/Shatha Hammad)

A national campaign submitted a request for his body to be released two days after his death; the only response the organisation has received from the Israeli army is that the file is "under examination".

In the absence of a concrete answer, the Hammads continue to organise events and protests in Silwad. Describing the withholding of bodies as "inhumane," Fatima said such a practice was more about punishing families than the slain individual.

"We as a Muslim family want to bury our son according to Islamic tradition. This is the most basic of our rights," she said. "This is the pinnacle of criminality practised by the Israeli army - not against the bodies, but against us as the families.

"We no longer sleep at night, and always feel uneasy," she said.

An 'immoral policy'

On Thursday, Israeli authorities informed the National Campaign to Retrieve the Bodies of Martyrs that they had no intention of handing over Mai's body. 

"While we have not received a clear response from the Israeli army about the reason for withholding Mai's body, we are now preparing to appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court," Salwa Hammad, a coordinator of the campaign, told MEE. 

While Israel has been withholding bodies of Palestinians since 1967, with many buried in the infamous "cemeteries of numbers," the practice has increased exponentially since the Palestinian offensive that began in September 2015, marked by small-scale lone-wolf attacks. 

The policy runs in contravention of international law, with the Geneva Convention stating that parties of an armed conflict must bury each other's dead honourably. According to Hammad, Israel has withheld at least 350 bodies of Palestinians since 2015, for periods ranging from three days to five years. In 2017, an Israeli court ruled that the policy was illegal, before the decision was swiftly overturned.

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Responding to a petition from six Palestinian families, Israel's High Court ruled in September 2019 that it was legal for the military to withhold bodies of alleged attackers, on two conditions: that the individual killed belonged to the Hamas movement, or that they had carried out a "significant" operation.

A year later, Israel's security cabinet decided that it could now withhold the bodies of all slain Palestinians accused of staging attacks on Israelis, not just those said to be Hamas members.

Salwa Hammad, however, argues that Mai's case does not fall under the terms stipulated in the 2019 High Court ruling.

"'Significant operation' is a loose term that the army interprets according to its wants. Today, the army withholds the bodies of many martyrs who do not meet the conditions of the Israeli court," she said.

Meanwhile, the wait continues for families.

 "I don't know when we will recover his body," Fatima said. "I have hope every day, and day after day passes and this hope is not met."

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

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