Israel has handed over the remains of scores of Palestinian fighters killed in attacks on Israel.
Seventy-nine bodies were handed over to Palestinian officials in Ramallah on Thursday and another 12 were transferred to the Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian Authority described them as “martyrs” killed since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank in 1967.
The fighters, including several suicide bombers, had been buried, some of them for decades, in a desolate Israeli military cemetery for “enemy combatants” in the West Bank.
“I am happy they are sending back his body so I can go and pray on his grave before I die.“
– Ahmad Kahlout, father
Al Jazeera’s Sue Turton, reporting from Ramallah, said the 91 bodies were only a third of the ones still interred in unnamed graves in Israeli cemeteries.
“The majority are from Nablus and Hebron,” she said. “The families are getting simple coffins back, with the numbers they were interred in in Israel. And inside the coffins are not only the bodies but also the belongings that they were found with.”
Among the bodies were eight members of a seaborne squad which took over a Tel Aviv hotel in 1975 before being killed by Israeli commandos, in a raid in which seven hostages were also killed.
The Palestinian Authority held a short ceremony with full military honours for the fighters in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Hamas held its own memorial ceremony in the Gaza Strip.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Ramallah, Fatima Abdulkarim of the Jerusalem Aid and Human Rights Centre, criticised the dealings of the Israeli government but said it was “a historic moment for the Palestinians”.
“We lack trust in the unilateral Israeli process. We are not in touch with the Israeli side on whose bodies have been released, how the DNA was tested or how the identification has been established,” Abdulkarim said.
“We are basing our appeals on the fact that people need to know and have closure to their stories that have been open for years.”
‘Pray on his grave’
Near the crossing from Israel to Gaza, families held framed pictures of their dead sons as they awaited the bodies.
Ahmad Kahlout’s 21-year-old son Yehiya was killed 17 years ago after he raided an Israeli settlement.
“I am happy they are sending back his body so I can go and pray on his grave before I die,” said Kahlout, 78.
“Until my dying day I will be proud of him, but also sad for the years I wasn’t able to visit his grave.”
Among the remains returning to Gaza is Reem al-Reashi, a Hamas suicide bomber who blew herself up at an Israeli army checkpoint in 2004, killing four soldiers. Her husband said parts of her body had already been buried. The rest was now on its way.
The return of the bodies was announced on May 14 by the office of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, in what it called “a gesture to President [Mahmoud] Abbas”.
“It is our hope that this humanitarian gesture will serve both as a confidence-building measure and help get the peace process back on track,” Mark Regev, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said.
“Israel is ready for the immediate resumption of peace talks without any preconditions whatsoever,” he said.
Abbas has demanded a halt to Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem as a condition for returning to peace talks that collapsed over the settlement issue in 2010.
The official Palestinian WAFA news agency said the remains would be transferred to families but 17 would be buried in a mass grave in Ramallah because their families could not be identified.
In July, Ehud Barak, Israel’s defence minister, blocked the transfer of the remains of 84 Palestinians buried in numbered graves in the Jordan Valley “cemetery of enemy combatants”, citing the need to review their identities.