Ramallah, Occupied West Bank - The families of Palestinian fighters killed in attacks against Israeli targets are accusing Israel of "callousness and racism" over what they see as procrastination to release the bodies of their beloved ones.
The bodies and remains of hundreds of Palestinian combatants, including suicide bombers or "martyr-bombers" killed in Israel proper and the occupied territories are buried in the so-called "cemetery of numbers" - because the graves had no names.
Palestinian and Israeli officials differ as to the exact number of bodies they have, so far, refused to release.
Ibrahim Najajreh, who is in charge of following-up on the issue in the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) Ministry for Prisoners' Affairs, puts the number at 450 - this number includes the bodies of Arab guerillas killed while trying to infiltrate Israel.
However, Israel estimates the number of bodies and remains at 330.
Several months ago, Israel promised the PA to release an undisclosed number of bodies of fighters. The promise was viewed by many Palestinians as a political inducement to encourage the PA to resume stalled peace talks with Israel.
The talks were eventually resumed nearly four months ago but have continually stalled and little progress has been made.
Meanwhile, citing security and procedural reasons, Israel has delayed the release of the bodies.
Ayed Faqih, whose son Ahmed was killed during an attack on a Jewish settlement west of Hebron on December 27, 2002, says he "has left no stone unturned" in the hope that the Israeli government would "end this nightmare by enabling us to give my son a proper burial and let him rest in peace".
"I think Israel wants to torment us to the maximum. But this is brash callousness and racism. They are punishing us as if we were responsible for or guilty of committing a crime."
They are using our sons' mutilated remains as hostages and bargaining chips.
Ahmed's mother, Kawthar, describes the family's ordeal as an unending nightmare.
"I think we have the right to give our son a decent and proper burial. This is a basic and axiomatic human right, irrespective of what my son did. This unending nightmare must end."
A few years ago, Faqih was able to obtain a court injunction through Andre Rosenthal, an American Jewish lawyer, that would have forced the Israeli government and army to hand over the body of his son.
"But one evening Rosenthal called, telling me that the army refuses to release the body of my son for security reasons."
Mustapha and Halima Shahin, who live in the southern West Bank of Dura, are the parents of Muhammed Shahin, also killed in the same operation.
They, too, accuse Israel of holding the body of their son for unethical reasons.
"It is clear they (Israel) want to torment us as an act of revenge. They are also likely to be seeking a certain political price from the PA in exchange for releasing the bodies and body parts of the martyrs."
Asked if he thought that Israel is deliberately prolonging their ordeal in order to discourage violence and terror against Israelis, Mustafa Shahin wouldn't accept any suggestion that his son was a "terrorist".
"It is an abuse of language to call my son terrorist. You should remember that we are victims of Israeli terror. How can a victim of terror be terrorist? They (Israelis) came here from overseas, seized our land and dispossessed us of everything. Any other people in our shoes would resist and fight back. Even in America they say give me freedom or give me death."
In addition to Ahmed Faqih's body, Israel is slated to release the bodies of several Palestinian suicide bombers, including that of Ayat al Akhras.
Al-Akhras was the third and youngest Palestinian female suicide bomber who, at age 18 (some sources report her age to be as young as 16), killed herself and two Israeli civilians on March 29, 2002 by detonating explosives belted to her body.
The killings gained widespread international attention due to Al-Akhras's age and gender and the fact that one of the victims was also a teenage girl.
The incident led then President George W. Bush to remark: “When an 18-year-old Palestinian girl is induced to blow herself up and in the process kills a 17-year-old Israeli girl, the future itself is dying; the future of the Palestinian people and the future of the Israeli people."
‘Terrorists’ vs ‘freedom fighters’
Israel considers all Palestinians attacking Israeli-Jewish targets, civilian or military, as terrorists.
But Najajreh dismisses these condemnations of Palestinian attacks as false righteousness.
"Look, Israel stole our country, destroyed our homes, bulldozed our villages and expelled our people all over the globe, and now they have the audacity to lecture us about terror.
Thaer Shreteh, another official in the Palestinian Ministry for Prisoners, accuses Israel of seeking "political concessions" from the PA in exchange for releasing the corpses.
"Israel claims that security and procedural reasons are hindering the speedy handover of our martyrs' bodies. But this is an obscene lie. Israel is effectively indulging in unethical bargaining. This is racism in its ugliest form. They are using our sons' mutilated remains as hostages and bargaining chips."
Al Jazeera submitted written questions to Israeli political and military officials, including the Israeli army spokesman, the Defense Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's spokesman Ofir Gendeleman. The latter declined to comment on the subject.
Source: Al Jazeera