Gone but not forgotten: The case of missing Palestinians
At least 78 Palestinians have been documented missing since the beginning of the Israeli occupation in 1948.
Mulki was four years old when his father went to war, and has one sole memory of him.
“He came into the house wearing his military uniform and carrying a box of red apples,” the 55-year-old told Al Jazeera.
His older siblings would always tell him how their father was always in uniform, and was the first person in the village to own a radio.
One photograph is all that Mulki and his siblings have left of their father, Mahmoud Suleiman.
Mahmoud left to fight in what has become to be known as the 1967 Six Day War, and promised his young children at the time he would be back.
Fifty-one years later, he still has not returned, and none of his family members have heard anything from him.
On June 5 of that year, the Arab armies appealed to its male citizens to join their ranks, as the war between them and Israel was about to erupt.
Mahmoud, who was 33 years old and working for a porter company, immediately heeded the call. He joined the Jordanian army, whose government had administered the West Bank since 1948.
“My father at the time was home on sick leave because he had broken his wrist,” Mulki, 55, told Al Jazeera.
Mahmoud, who was living in the village of Beit Ur, west of the West Bank city of Ramallah, was summoned to the Second King Hussein Battalion, which had its headquarters in the Bani Yacoub area in Jerusalem.
Despite the family’s attempts to prevent Mahmoud from leaving due to his health, he insisted on meeting the army’s call. He wore his military uniform, bid his family farewell and left.
Like thousands of other Palestinians during the war, Mahmoud’s wife and her six children fled to Jordan. As soon as the war was over, which ended with the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip, West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula and the Syrian Golan Heights, the family began to look for Mahmoud.
“Everyone was looking for my father but we did not know whether he was dead or alive,” Mulki said.
After months of unsuccessful appeals to the Red Cross and the battalion, the family, which had lost its breadwinner, started receiving a pension from the Jordanian army.
Furthermore, the army announced that Mahmoud had been killed and issued a death certificate, despite the fact that there was no evidence of him being killed.
‘We lost hope’
Decades later, towards the end of the 90s, Mulki brought his father’s case to the attention of local media, which coincided with statements made by the Israeli government that it had killed scores of Palestinians who had crept back into the country from Jordan and carried out military operations.
Several war survivors told the Ouri family that they had seen Mahmoud, slightly injured, during the battle, confirming that he was indeed a participant during the war.
Yet Mulki said that after years of searching, he barely has any other confirmed accounts of what happened to his father.
“We do not know if my father was martyred and buried in the cemeteries of numbers,” he said, referring to Israeli closed military zones that contain mass graves of unknown Palestinian and Arab bodies that are marked with numbers.
“We had hope that my father was still alive, but after all these years we lost it,” he added.
“We now only ask for a simple human right, to know where my father was buried, to visit his grave and read the Quran to him,” Mulki said.
Dangers of crossing the border
During the 1967 war, soldiers were not the only ones who went missing at the border, but civilians too, who tried to return from Jordan to their families in Palestine. This was the case with the parents of Abdel-Majeed Mustafa Hamdan, from the village of Aroura, north of Ramallah.
Abdel-Majeed, who is now 81 years old, sits in front of his library with an oil painting of his mother, Zubaida Hassan. Behind him is a black and white photograph of his father, Mustafa Hamdan.
These are the only things he keeps to remember his parents, unlike his three brothers who until this day have held on to their mother and father’s clothes.
Two months before the war broke out, Zubeida had traveled to Kuwait to visit her eldest son. When June came around, her husband Mustafa insisted on going to Kuwait to bring her back to Palestine, fearing that they would be denied the right to return, as had previously happened with Palestinians in 1948.
The couple returned to Amman in August and stayed at the Al-Karama camp with a relative.
“Twenty-five people, including my parents, were preparing to return to Palestine by crossing the border at 3am on August 13, despite the warnings and the stories that had been circulating about the Israeli army killing those who infiltrated the border,” Abdel-Majeed said.
That was the last day his parents were seen. For the next few months, Abdel-Majeed and his brothers frantically searched for their parents in prisons, hoping they were arrested and not killed.
Then in February the following year, their worst suspicions were confirmed.
Two members of the group that included his parents relayed the events of that pre-dawn morning.
“My parents and the rest of the group were crossing the Jordan River, when two members became too afraid to carry on and turned back,” Abdel-Majeed said.
“At the same time, the Israeli army directed their searchlights towards the group and began to shoot at them.”
The two, who survived the massacre, suffered from deep psychological trauma at the massacre they had witnessed, and were unable to talk about what had happened until six months later.
They confirmed that the Israeli army had killed the whole group in front of them, while they had evaded death by hiding in the small bushes.
“We heard a lot about the killing of Palestinians on the border and the corpses floating on the river,” Abdel-Majeed said.
To this day Abdul-Majeed does not know what exactly happened to his parents, but he is certain that they have died.
“Even today, we do not know the burial site of my father and mother, which is the only thing we wish to know today, in order to visit their graves,” says Abdul-Majeed.
“I am sure that the Israeli army killed my elderly parents and many others on the border. This is confirmed by many accounts, which deny Israel’s claims about the transparency of its weapons usage.
“The Israeli army lost its humanity and killed innocent unarmed people who were only trying to get to their families.”
Difficulties in documenting missing people
Salwa Hammad, a coordinator of a campaign to recover the bodies of Arab and Palestinians held by the Israel, said that the campaign is trying to find out the fate of people whose families have reported the missing of their loved ones at various times since the beginning of the Israeli occupation.
The campaign, which was founded in 2008, regularly receives reports from families confirming the loss of their children and who accuse Israel of being responsible for their fates.
According to Hammad, 78 Palestinians have been documented missing, with the oldest case going back to 1951.
The largest number of missing people documented goes back to 1967, where 43 Palestinians have been reported by their families.
“The real number of missing persons exceeds the number we have documented, especially since the documentation process takes place through direct contact with families who provide us with information and details about those missing,” Hammad said.
Hammad said that during the process of documenting missing persons, the campaign faced a problem that began with obtaining information from people who lived in villages along the border, who said they have buried scores of people killed by the Israeli army.
“This problem has complicated tracing and documenting the cases of missing people,” she said.
Israel does not recognise the burial of many Palestinians killed in the cemeteries of numbers, which include at least 253 Palestinians, and also does not recognise the missing Palestinians and Arabs.
In 2017, Israel admitted to the detention of only 124 bodies of missing Palestinians, and refused to recognise the rest of the held or missing bodies.
Besides Palestinians, people from several Arab countries, including Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, are unaccounted for.
However, the campaign has not been able to refer to the Israeli courts with these files through legal procedures, which Hammad describes as a “difficult and thorny” process.
The hope of finding missing people is still fresh among many Palestinian families, who suspect that their lost children may still be alive and are in Israeli secret prisons.
As long as they do not see the body, they will cling to that hope of finding them alive, Hammad said. It’s a form of psychological torture, and the practise of withholding bodies is a violation of international law.
For families like Mulki Suleiman and Abdel-Majeed Hamdan, the only thing they want is to know where their loved ones lie.