Army Holding Body of Israeli Shot After Attempted Stabbing as Bargaining Chip With Hamas

Eight months after death of East Jerusalem resident, a paranoid schizophrenic, his family is still fighting, but IDF claims holding the remains for prisoner exchanges is legal

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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The location of the alleged stabbing attempt took place in the Old City of Jerusalem, February 2020.
The location of the alleged stabbing attempt took place in the Old City of Jerusalem, February 2020.
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

The Israeli army has been holding onto the remains of a "mentally impaired" Palestinian from East Jerusalem, Maher Za’atara, who was shot and killed after what police believed was an attempted knife attack, as a bargaining chip in negotiations with Hamas.

Za’atara, who is an Israeli citizen, was killed in February in the Old City of Jerusalem, but the events surrounding the incident are disputed. 

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A video circulated by police at the time showed him running with a knife toward a gate of the Temple Mount just before they shot and killed him at the site, however, relatives and witnesses said the police were not at risk, and that Za'atara was fleeing from them when he was shot.

Other witnesses told Haaretz that the family had asked police to release the security camera footage, and they appealed on Wednesday to the Justice Ministry unit that investigates police misconduct after the police rejected their request.

Maher Za’atara

Mohammed Za’atara, the victim’s brother, told Haaretz he was "mentally impaired and everyone knows this. He did not know what he was doing.”

The family has also petitioned the High Court for the return of Za'atara's remains. Their attorney Kamal Zahaika said Za’atara was a paranoid schizophrenic and that he had been hospitalized a number of times in psychiatric institutions. He also submitted medical documents to back up the claim. Family members said the man had stopped taking his medicine before the incident occurred.

“It isn’t proper for the administrative authority not to show any consideration and enacting Regulation 133 (3) [rather than] protecting a person with a psychological disorder who has an Israeli identity document,” the petition says.

It also alleges that that the body is being held “with the aim of holding future negotiations with the Hamas terrorist organization for the return of dead soldiers held by that organization, and to punish the late person’s family.”

The IDF keeps the remains of slain combatants or assailants in custody under amendment 133 to the Emergency Power Regulations which says that “a military commander may order the body of any person to be buried where the commander orders.”

In recent years, the IDF has collected remains of Palestinians involved in hostile operations in the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem. Human rights group B’Tselem estimates the army has the remains of 60 Palestinians who either perpetrated or tried to perpetrate an attack since September 2015, but it is unusual for the bodies of Israeli citizens to be held in such a manner.

In 2017, the High Court of Justice overruled the practice of holding onto corpses, in response to a petition, reasoning that the regulations do not permit bodies to be held for the purpose of negotiation. But that decision was later overturned by a larger panel of judges convened at the state’s request.

The IDF spokesperson’s unit said in response: “The corpse of the terrorist is being held by the IDF in accordance with regulations and this shall be until a political decision is made regarding custody or return of the corpse. A response to the petition will be submitted to the court in customary fashion.”

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