Palestinian Attackers' Families in Long Limbo, Awaiting Bodies for Burial

Despite High Court vows that they would receive bodies of sons and daughters involved in assaults on Israelis, 15 families still waiting to conduct funerals; one is suffering an inexplicable runaround by police.

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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Palestinian police officers carry bodies of Palestinians who allegedly stabbed Israelis, after their bodies were released by Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron October 30, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

In recent months Jerusalem District Police have suggested burial sites in four possible cemeteries for Baha Alyan, of the Jabel Mukaber neighborhood. In three of them a plot has now been reserved in the name of the 23-year-old artist and social activist – beloved and well known in East Jerusalem – who was shot dead by police on October 13 after an attack on a city bus in which three Israelis were killed.

But each time a burial plot had been chosen, the money was paid to grave-diggers and the family began preparing itself for saying farewell – the police changed their minds about the location.

The result: Alyan’s body is still being held in the refrigerator in the Abu Kabir forensic institute in Tel Aviv – along with the bodies of another 14 Palestinians who carried out attacks or were suspected of intending to do so in the last 10 months.

Last October 13, Baha Alyan and his friend Bilal Abu Ghanem entered a bus in Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv neighborhood with a gun and knives and killed three Israeli passengers. Border Policemen killed Alyan on the spot. Abu Ghanem, who was wounded, was given three life sentences. In January the police destroyed Alyan’s home, where eight members of his family were living.

Palestinians protest in Ramallah for release of bodies. Credit: Amira Hass

His father, Mohammed Alyan, a lawyer, was detained for questioning about six weeks ago, and released after three days. He told Haaretz that if the arrest was meant to deter him from continuing to represent other families in his situation – the objective was not achieved. Alyan often speaks to young Palestinians throughout the West Bank, telling them: “My message is: Don’t imitate my son. Cling to life.”

In March, Alyan and another eight Palestinian fathers from East Jerusalem submitted a petition to Israel’s High Court of Justice, requesting the release of their sons’ bodies for burial. In early May, the State Prosecutor’s Office promised the court that it would begin to release the bodies, and the petition was filed away.

For their part, Justices Elyakim Rubinstein, Yoram Danziger and Uri Shoham suggested that the bodies be removed from refrigeration 48 hours before burial, so that they could thaw out and the families would be spared the emotional anguish endured by others who had received the bodies of their dear ones in a frozen and rigid state. The judges also recommended that the release and burial be concluded before Ramadan (by early July). By May 24, indeed, four bodies had been released for burial.

The body of Baha Alyan was supposed to be interred on May 26, according to the following conditions: The burial would be held the middle of the night, with only 30 participants, in a cemetery on the eastern side of the separation barrier. Several hours after this was agreed upon, the police ordered him buried elsewhere, in Jabel Mukaber. But the burial did not take place.

On May 25, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan ordered a stop to the release of the bodies, claiming that the police’s conditions had been violated at the funeral a day earlier of Alaa Abu Jamal in Jabel Mukaber.

Local residents rejected Erdan's claims and said that the number of persons in the cemetery was as agreed (only 38), and that the hundreds of policemen deployed in the vicinity during the funeral didn’t prevent other residents from attending prayers in the nearby mosque.

The aftermath of the attack on the Jerusalem bus, on October 13, 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

“The Abu Jamal family couldn’t act like a police force and forbid people from going to the mosque,” Mohammed Alyan told Haaretz earlier this month. As for the police’s claim that people leaving the mosque cried out in a belligerent fashion, Alyan wondered: “Why is that the responsibility of the family that is burying someone, and why punish the rest of the families?”

The families of all 13 young men and two women who were killed after perpetrating attacks or brandishing knives at Israeli soldiers or policemen continue to live in tortured uncertainty: “We haven’t seen a death certificate, or a report from Abu Kabir. We weren’t allowed to see Baha’s body or have someone see it on our behalf,” said Alyan.

For Muslims, as for Jews, whose religion commands them to bury a person on the day of his death – every day of delay is a day of terrible anguish. Not to mention 10 months.

On June 5, Alyan and another five fathers from East Jerusalem submitted a new petition. Justice Danziger didn’t conceal his dissatisfaction with the state's refusal to allow the burials, and ordered the state prosecutor and the police to explain how their conduct conformed with the High Court decision on the previous petition.

At first the state prosecution replied that there was no opposition to returning the bodies, as long as it was done carefully and on condition that the funerals wouldn’t turn into “journeys to glorify the names of the terrorists.” But while the petition was still pending about a month later, the court received a clarification from the prosecution to the effect that it was the political leadership that decided to discontinue the return of bodies of Palestinians killed after perpetrating attacks or due to the suspicion that they were planning to attack.

The High Court had hoped that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit would order the government to act differently. But he decided that the government's decision was reasonable and that there was no justification for the intervention of the court. The court decided, however, that its intervention was in fact justified, and ordered the government to reply by Monday as to why the bodies should not be immediately handed over to their families for burial.

And then began another difficult chapter: A week ago the Alyans were summoned to the police, with attorney Mohammed Mahmoud, to discuss the conditions of Baha’s burial. The family opposed the demand that only 15 people would participate in the funeral. The next day the police agreed to 30, and ordered the burial to take place in a cemetery outside the Old City’s Lion’s Gate. But just hours after the agreement was signed, the police informed them that only 20 could participate. The family agreed – but a few hours later the police again changed the cemetery to that on Saladin Street in downtown East Jerusalem.

Alyan told Haaretz that he believes that a desire to take revenge on the family is behind the changes of sites. The negotiations with the police stopped.

“The fourth cemetery they chose is in a crowded residential neighborhood. They bring hundreds of policemen in the middle of the night, where the chances of friction are much greater,” said the father.

For their part, the police say that the matter is under judicial clarification and they cannot answer any questions. But the negotiations resumed on Sunday, and it is expected that the first body, that of Mohammed al Kaluti,  will be buried on Wednesday in Salah Al-Din Cemetery.

The Alyans still do not know when they will receive their son's body.

“I’m interested in a quiet funeral,” said Alyan. “I don’t want friction. I want to bring my son to the grave, and I will tell the others to bring the message that was always his: Stick to life.”