Israel’s use of “necroviolence” on bodies of Palestinians has been condemned as part of its policy to exert further control over the people living in the occupied territories.
On Sunday, a video that went viral on social media showed an Israeli bulldozer violently scooping up the body of a Palestinian who had been shot by Israeli forces east of Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.
Israeli authorities alleged that the man, identified as 27-year-old Mohammed Ali al-Naim – a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) movement, was attempting to plant an explosive device near the Israeli fence.
The video showed a group of Palestinians running forward with a wheelbarrow to try to carry al-Naim’s body, as well as another man who was wounded, back from the fence but they were also targeted by Israeli soldiers.
At least two men were shot in the legs, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
Muthana al-Najjar, the journalist who shot the video, said the Israeli bulldozer, which was accompanied by a Merkava tank, ran over al-Naim’s body and tried several times to pick it up with its blade before taking it back to the Israeli side as the body dangled from the edge of the blade.
“Desecrating the dead body of a young unarmed man on the borders of the Gaza Strip in front of the cameras of the whole world is a heinous crime that adds to the occupation’s list of crimes against our Palestinian people,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for the Hamas movement that governs the Gaza Strip, in a press statement.
According to Budour Hassan, a legal researcher with the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC), this necroviolence – the act of humiliating human bodies – is a means of exerting control over bodies of the Palestinians.
“We see it as an extension of an entire policy designed by Israel to control bodies of Palestinians,” Hassan told Al Jazeera.
The word necroviolence, Hassan added, is borrowed from anthropologist Jason De Leon’s book, The Land of Open Graves, in which he coined the term to describe the mistreatment of bodies of migrants who crossed the US border from Mexico.
Hassan added that while desecrating Palestinian bodies was not exceptional to the Israeli forces, the video of the incident was a rare instance where it was carried out publicly.
“Israel carries out similar forms of humiliation on bodies silently in morgues or in the cemeteries of numbers,” she explained, referring to mass graves marked with numbers etched on metal plates rather than names.
The cemeteries are situated in secret locations that Israel has deemed closed military zones. Some of the bodies have been there since the 1967 war.
Furthermore, the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv, which holds bodies of Palestinians killed in alleged attacks on Israelis, is notoriously known as the place where Palestinian organs and body parts have been harvested.
According to JLAC and Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, an NGO, Israel is the only country in the world that has a policy of confiscation of human remains, where it relies on regulations dating back to 1945 (during the British Mandate) as grounds for its policy.
In September 2019, the Israeli High Court approved the practice after several legal cases were brought against the state. According to Adalah, the ruling stated that emergency regulations allowed the Israeli military to order temporary burial of Palestinians classified as enemies “based on considerations that take into account state security, civil order, and the need to negotiate for the return of the bodies of Israeli soldiers”.
However, international law considers the practice a violation of human rights. According to the Geneva Conventions, 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”.
Ramy Abdu, the founder of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, said Israel withholding bodies of Palestinians is an act of collective violence that is considered a war crime.
“The Israeli authorities have repeatedly adopted a policy of withholding Palestinian bodies, which blatantly contradicts several international conventions,” Abdu told Al Jazeera. “Articles in the Geneva Conventions assure the necessity of burying the bodies of deceased detainees or those who were killed with respect according to procedures that are appropriate with their religious culture,” he added.
According to the JLAC, 52 bodies of Palestinians have been detained by the Israeli government as part of a cabinet decision in 2016.
A further 18 bodies were also detained by Israel from the 2014 Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip, whereas the cemeteries of numbers hold at least 253 bodies.
“There are two branches to this policy,” Hassan said. “One is the legalised violence that is approved by the Israeli High Court, and the other is the violence practised by the Israeli army. Both follow the same pattern of dehumanising Palestinian bodies.”
It is widely known that Israel employs the practice as a tactic for leverage in negotiations. In 2012, Israel released bodies of 90 Palestinians in a gesture for reviving peace talks. Between 2013 and 2014, some 27 bodies were returned.
Speaking about Sunday’s incident, Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett confirmed the bulldozer was used to “collect” al-Naim’s body. He said he intended to keep the bodies from Gaza to use as bargaining chips with “Palestinian militants” in body-swap deals, and slammed the uproar over withholding al-Naim’s body as the “hypocritical criticism of the left”.
“I back the IDF that killed the terrorist and collected the body,” he said in a post on Twitter. “This is how it should be done, and this is how it will be done.”
Hassan said while Bennett’s comments are not surprising, they are interesting in the way “it justifies the extent to which Palestinians have been dehumanised in Israeli media and by Israeli officials which is a culmination of the whole system of necroviolence that is being exerted on Palestinians”.
In a letter sent to the Israeli chief military advocate general, Adalah called for a criminal investigation of the incident, and termed the manhandling of the body a “blatant” violation of international criminal law, human rights and humanitarian law.
“The Israeli Supreme Court has likewise recognised in past rulings that harm to the dignity of the deceased is a violation of Israel’s basic law: human dignity and liberty,” the centre said.
Aida Touma-Sliman, a Palestinian Israeli member of Knesset representing the Hadash party – a part of the Joint List alliance, called Bennett “the minister of death and brutality”.
“They steal a body, abuse it with a bulldozer and still argue that the army is the most moral in the world,” she said. “Since Bennett took office as defence minister, hoarding bodies to bargain with is Israel’s declared policy.”
Ofer Cassif, another Joint List parliamentarian, called the abduction of a body as “the nauseating, blood-thirsty act of vampirism”.
“Here is what [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu has to offer: Siege, killing and abducting bodies,” Cassif wrote on Twitter. “We need to put an end to their celebration of death.”