Now into the second month of the current confrontation with the Palestinians, the terrorist attacks are continuing, and are now centered on the West Bank, and particularly on one front, the Hebron area. Sunday, in the course of about three hours and in the vicinity of one intersection, there was an attempted stabbing of a soldier that ended with the killing of the Palestinian assailant. Then three border policemen were injured in an attempt to run them over.
But while dealing with the confrontation with the Palestinians, Israel is trying to develop a clear stance on a policy issue that should have been rather marginal to the conflict: what Israel should do with terrorists’ bodies in its possession.
Amid the panicked public atmosphere that resulted when terrorist attacks began taking place within the 1967 Green Line Israel about three weeks ago and following political pressure on cabinet members, the security cabinet decided to vary its standard practice and begin delaying the transfer of the bodies of terrorists killed while committing attacks to their families. The shift was led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, over the reservations of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and senior army brass.
Although the Shin Bet security service refused to say Sunday what position the head of the agency, Yoram Cohen, had taken in the security cabinet, participants at the meeting understood that, contrary to the position of Ya’alon and senior Israel Defense Force officials, Cohen sees advantages in the bodies remaining in Israel.
The security cabinet decision has not been fully enforced and the panel also authorized the prime minister to enable the defense minister and the public security minister to exercise their own judgment, each in his own area of responsibility when it comes to returning bodies in the future. In the meantime, wide-scale popular protest has been aroused among Palestinians in Hebron over Israel’s possession of the bodies. During most of last week, there were violent demonstrations in the town with residents clashing with Israeli soldiers and demanding the return of the bodies.
In consultation with senior IDF officials, Defense Minister Ya’alon decided to return the bodies of five terrorists from Hebron along with one from Azzariyeh near Bethlehem and one from Qabatiyah near Jenin. The handover of the bodies on Friday evening was conditioned on the Palestinian Authority preventing mass funerals with speeches of incitement, on the grounds that such funerals could spark new violence. Two more bodies of Palestinian terrorists were transferred Sunday. The Palestinian Authority has not made good on its word, the Israeli defense establishment said. The funerals in Hebron turned into major shows of nationalism, although some of the other funerals took a lower profile.
In the meantime, the families of Israeli soldiers who went missing in action in last year’s war in Gaza have launched their own protest over the fact that Hamas is still holding the bodies of their sons, 1st Lt. Hadar Goldin and Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul. The families are demanding that no further transfers of bodies of terrorists be carried out until Hamas agrees to hand over the bodies of the two soldiers.
For his part, Defense Minister Ya’alon announced Sunday that he would not authorize the transfer of any more bodies of terrorists if the Palestinian Authority does not see to it that the funerals take a low profile, and he threatened to simply have the bodies buried in Israel.
Defense officials are currently considering requiring, before the terrorists’ bodies are handed over, that families of the terrorists sign a commitment to refrain from holding mass funerals. The Israel Police have been following a similar policy for some time with families of terrorists from East Jerusalem. Most of the families there have abided by their commitments, but Israel has greater leverage over Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed in 1967, than it does in the West Bank because East Jerusalemites are afraid of losing rights that they are accorded as residents of Israel.
And yet, Ya’alon, senior members of the IDF general staff, the office of the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories and the IDF Central Command are not pleased with the new policy. They have reservations over having Israel dragged into haggling over bodies, something that the country had tried to avoid in the past. In addition, there is concern that holding on to the bodies would only exacerbate the unrest on the ground, as already occurred last week in Hebron. They also don’t see the bodies as an asset and instead believe them to be a burden.
A review of prior negotiations over the return of bodies held by the enemy reveals that in most of the prior deals, bodies on one side were not exchanged for bodies on the other. When Palestinian organizations or the Lebanese-based Hezbollah militia were provided bodies, it was part of a broader agreement in which live terrorist were also freed by Israel (in the case of Hezbollah), or as an Israeli gesture as part of a large package deal (with the Palestinians). IDF experts expressed major doubt that holding the bodies of terrorists from Hebron, most of whom were not Hamas activists, would in some way influence the thinking of the heads of Hamas’ military wing in Gaza who are interested in receiving a lot more in exchange for the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers.
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