Palestinians demand Israel return bodies of loved ones

Under the slogan ‘we want our children back’, relatives call on Israel to return their loved ones’ remains.

Ramallah protests Zena
Since 1967, Israel has kept hundreds of bodies of Palestinians killed by its army or police [Zena Tahhan/Al Jazeera]

Ramallah, Occupied West Bank – Dozens of relatives of slain Palestinians held a rally calling on Israel to return the bodies of their loved ones.

Monday’s protest in Ramallah took place before an Israeli Supreme Court session on Tuesday regarding the cases of 10 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since 2015 whose bodies have not been returned.

Under the slogan “we want our children back”, the mothers, fathers and relatives marched from Al Manara Square in downtown Ramallah holding up signs of their slain sons, chanting “freedom to our martyrs”.

“It is our right to get their bodies back and bury them. It is our right to know what happened to our boys,” Azhar Abu Srour, an organiser of the rally, told Al Jazeera.

“The occupation always tries to keep us in the dark – we cannot bid our boys farewell, or bury them with dignity,” said the mother, whose son’s body has been held the longest – since April 2016.

“This is a crime and the occupation needs to be held accountable,” Abu Srour, from the town of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, added.

Her son, Abdulhameed, died of his wounds after carrying out a bomb attack on a bus in Jerusalem, a few months after his cousin was shot dead by the Israeli army.

Israel withholds bodies to use as bargaining chips in political negotiations with the Palestinian leadership. It also claims releasing the bodies leads to “incitement” at funerals.

“As a mother, you raise your child, teach him, and watch him grow. In the end, when he becomes a martyr, the last duty you have to fulfil towards your child is to bury him with dignity,” Abu Srour said.

Azhar Abu Srour: 'We cannot bid our boys farewell or bury them with dignity'  [Zena Tahhan/Al Jazeera]
Azhar Abu Srour: ‘We cannot bid our boys farewell or bury them with dignity’ [Zena Tahhan/Al Jazeera]

Her son’s body is among the 10 other cases that have reached the Israeli Supreme Court.

Four of the 10, including Abdulhameed, have been buried in cemeteries belonging to the Israeli army, while the other six remain in morgues at the Abu Kbir Institute in Tel Aviv.

While the court is not expected to make a final decision on Tuesday, Salwa Hammad, coordinator for the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC) – which is leading the campaign to pressure Israel to return the bodies – said the session is important.

“We’ll be able to derive what the outcome will be based on the discussion that takes place in the court session – the way that the judges interact with the army and with the plaintiffs – we’ll know what to expect after that,” Hammad told Al Jazeera.

The decision may be issued between two weeks to two months after the court session.

Bodies for political leverage

Israel has been keeping the bodies of Palestinians that its army or police have killed from as far back as 1967 when it occupied the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Strip.

According to JLAC, at least 17 bodies are kept in morgues, four are buried in cemeteries belonging to the military, while hundreds of others are withheld at the infamous “cemeteries of numbers“.

Withholding bodies is a violation of international law and has been widely condemned [Zena Tahhan/Al Jazeera]
Withholding bodies is a violation of international law and has been widely condemned [Zena Tahhan/Al Jazeera]

Hammad said there are at least 253 people buried in such cemeteries in closed military zones. The cemeteries are made up of mass graves marked with numbers rather than names, and some bodies have been there since the 1967 war.

In 2012, Israel released the bodies of 90 Palestinians in a gesture to revive peace talks.

But in December 2017, the High Court of Justice ruled it is unlawful for the state to withhold bodies for negotiations, because there is no specific law that allows it to do so. The court offered the state six months to legislate on the topic.

In March 2018, the Israeli government passed a law allowing police to withhold bodies, but the legislation is not applicable to the occupied West Bank or Gaza Strip, which do not fall under Israeli law.

The practice is a violation of international law and has been widely condemned by rights groups.

The Geneva Conventions state the parties of an armed conflict must bury the deceased in an honourable way, “if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged and that their graves are respected, properly maintained and marked in such a way that they can always be recognised”.

‘How are we supposed to feel?’

Back at the protest, the voices of the families reverberated throughout the streets of Ramallah.

While Abu Srour knows that all she may get back is a bag of bones and possibly some clothes, she believes it is a basic human right to bury her deceased son.

“Parents bury their children with their own hands. They spend a long period of time in denial that they lost their child. This is normal. So imagine those who didn’t bury their children. How are they supposed to feel?

“We always feel that our children are alive until we bury them ourselves.”

Source: Al Jazeera