Israel and Palestinian activists use bodies as bargaining chip
ABU DIS, West Bank (AP) – More than a year after his son was killed by Israeli forces in controversial circumstances in the occupied West Bank, Mustafa Erekat is still searching for his remains.
This is one of dozens of cases in which Israel holds the remains of Palestinians killed in the conflict, citing the need to deter attacks and potentially exchange them for the remains of two Israeli soldiers held by the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians and human rights groups view the practice of holding bodies as a form of collective punishment that inflicts further suffering on bereaved families.
“They don’t have the right to keep my son, and it’s my right for my son to have a good funeral,” Erekat said.
The Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, a Palestinian rights group, says Israel has held the bodies of at least 82 Palestinians since the policy was established in 2015. It says many are buried in cemeteries secrets where the plots are marked only by number plates. Hamas holds the remains of the two Israeli soldiers killed during the Gaza war in 2014 in an undisclosed location.
Last year, the Israeli Security Cabinet expanded the policy include the detention of the remains of all Palestinians killed in alleged attacks, not just those linked to Hamas. Israel considers Hamas, which runs Gaza, a terrorist group.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz said at the time that the detention of the remains would deter attacks and help secure the return of Israeli captives and remains. The Defense Ministry declined to comment on this policy.
One of the bodies is that of Erekat’s son Ahmed, whom Israeli officials say was shot dead after deliberately crashing into a military checkpoint in June 2020. Security camera footage shows the car veering into a group of Israeli soldiers and dismissing one of them. Ahmed gets out of the car and raises one of his hands before receiving several bullets and falling to the ground.
His family say it was an accident. Mustafa said his son passed the checkpoint on his way to the nearby town of Bethlehem to buy clothes for his sister’s wedding later that night. The shooting drew attention, in part because Ahmed was the nephew of Saeb Erekat, a veteran Palestinian spokesperson and negotiator. who passed away last year.
Ahmed was to be married soon, his father said: “He had a house that was ready for him.”
To this day, he has no idea where his son’s remains are.
Omar Shakir, director of Israel and Palestine at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Israel had turned “corpses into bargaining chips.” The policy “deliberately and illegally punishes the families of the deceased, who are not charged with any wrongdoing,” he said.
Israel has a long history of exchanging prisoners and stays with its enemies. In 2011, he exchanged over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners for an Israeli soldier who had been captured by Palestinian militants five years earlier and was being held in Gaza.
In 2008, he exchanged five Lebanese prisoners, including a notorious activist, and the remains of nearly 200 Lebanese and Palestinians killed in action, for the remains of two Israeli soldiers captured by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah two years earlier.
Egypt has negotiated negotiations on a similar deal that would return the remains of the two soldiers, as well as two Israeli civilians believed to be alive, held by Hamas in Gaza.
In the meantime, the Erekat and other Palestinian families must turn to Israel’s Supreme Court in a process involving multiple hearings that can take years.
The court dismissed a recent appeal from the Erekats, citing confidential information submitted by the military. Mustafa Erekat says the system is rigged. He accused the court of dragging its feet until the remains detention policy is broadened and then relying on secret evidence.
Mohammed Aliyan, spokesperson for six Palestinian families who filed a petition with the Supreme Court for the return of the bodies of their relatives in 2016, said the judges initially sided with the families before an army appeal. .
“They always accept the demands of the military,” Aliyan told The Associated Press, “They are afraid to take a decision against them.”
Liron Libman, a military law expert at the Israel Institute of Democracy, said there are situations where certain information cannot be made public for fear of exposing protected sources or special operations.
“Either party has the right to request a postponement of the hearing, and the court will accept the request if it finds it for a justifiable reason,” Libman told the AP.
Even if a family’s petition is successful, locating the bodies of loved ones for exhumation can pose additional challenges, especially in cases where the bodies were buried decades ago.
Rami Saleh, director of the Jerusalem Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights, said his organization had dealt with cases where Israeli authorities were unable to locate the bodies and also those where members of the the Palestinian family were to undergo DNA testing to confirm the remains of a relative.
Mustafa said he had not given up hope and intended to challenge the Supreme Court’s decision. Meanwhile, he and Aliyan, the spokesperson for the other families, attend weekly sit-ins calling for the release of all bodies held by the Israeli authorities.
“The feeling of not being able to bury your relative’s body is more painful than death,” Aliyan said.