Palestinian Sense of Victory Over Return of Bodies Exposes Fundamental Weakness of 'Individual Intifada'

Israel is now again returning the bodies of Palestinians, but doesn’t want autopsies performed lest it highlight how many bullets were fired or how long it took the victims to bleed to death.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Hundreds of mourners walk down a Hebron street during the mass funeral of 14 Palestinians killed in recent attacks, January 2, 2016.
Mourners attending the mass funeral in Hebron for 14 Palestinians killed in recent attacks, January 2, 2016. Credit: AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

The past week was marked by funerals for people killed in the uprising of individuals; the bodies have been returned to the families after weeks or months. The Israeli authorities have thus reversed their policy and neutralized a main cause of recent agitation.

The cabinet’s previous decision had been made in October. Based on a suggestion by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, the bodies of killed Palestinian assailants or alleged assailants would not be handed back to their families.

But this achieved the opposite of deterrence and calm. The demand to return the bodies became a mainstay at demonstrations; the fear that the bodies would be buried in numbered plots in cemeteries supervised by the Israeli army stoked fury.

Some 140 Palestinians have been killed by Israel since October, some in demonstrations but most, 90, in attacks (or suspected attacks) by individuals.

Seventy-nine bodies were held by Israel for long periods, and 12 remain in Israeli hands, all of them bodies of East Jerusalemites.

A week ago Friday, 23 bodies were returned, 17 from the Hebron area. A mass funeral was held the next day in Hebron for 14 of the dead.

Over the week more bodies were returned, including three of East Jerusalemites who lived in neighborhoods on the other side of the separation barrier.

The three were transferred to Palestinian ambulances at 1:30 A.M. Tuesday at the goods checkpoint in Beitunia. Dozens of cars accompanied the ambulances to a Ramallah hospital. Some drivers honked their horns as if it were a wedding or some other happy occasion.

Indeed, over the last two weeks, Palestinian spokespeople have portrayed these funerals as a victory over the previous cabinet decision not to return the bodies, and over demands by the army and police to keep the funerals small and brief.

This sense of victory exposes a fundamental weakness of this privatized uprising. Since it lacks clear and well-formulated goals, a side problem has become a major focus. The resolution of the problem has become a source of pride and a potential reason for ramping down the protest.

A no-choice situation?

The return of the bodies marks a Palestinian failure; their wish to perform as many autopsies as possible has been foiled. Many families gave their consent in principle, convinced of the importance of determining which ammunition and weapons were used, how many bullets hit their loved ones and how long it took to bleed to death.

Autopsy supporters hoped to use the findings at international forums to support their claims that Israel is executing people, because most of the suspected assailants could have been kept alive.

Israel’s behavior regarding the bodies and the conditions under which they were returned underlined Palestinian impressions that Israel has something to hide, so it opposes autopsies.

Eleven families from East Jerusalem whose sons were killed during stabbing and car-ramming attacks or alleged attacks expressed doubts about Israeli claims that there was no choice but to kill them.

They requested that formal autopsies be performed at the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv.

The police oppose this. The families, represented by attorney Mohammad Mahmoud from human rights group Addameer, appealed to the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court. The proceedings were held in camera and the judges accepted police arguments that there was no evidence of wrongful killing, rendering autopsies unwarranted.

After Israel reversed its decision to hold on to the bodies, families in the West Bank were commanded to bury their loved ones quickly (thus precluding an autopsy). This demand was sent via the Palestinian Liaison Committee. Families that refused a quick burial were not given the bodies.

Also, an ad hoc coalition of Palestinian groups and activists representing the families rejected the demand. A week and a half ago, families met in Ramallah; they signed a commitment not to accept Israel’s conditions. Aware of this position, the army nevertheless kept handing over the bodies.

But then a new problem cropped up. The bodies were kept in deep freeze, so quick autopsies weren’t possible. A thaw of up to 48 hours was necessary. One body arrived curled up and a whole day was needed for it to be straightened out for burial.

No sign of organ harvesting

In one case a man’s cornea was damaged by the deep freeze, Palestinian medical personnel said. This led to rumors that corneas were being stolen, leading to a Palestinian complaint at the United Nations. Palestinian Health Ministry officials interviewed on Palestinian radio say the bodies showed no signs of organ harvesting and that corneas had not been stolen.

In any case, medical personnel say the deep freeze of bodies isn’t necessary; Palestinian human rights groups suspect the freeze is a way to foil any attempt to perform autopsies. It turns out that when families receive a body, they want a burial the next day. Even if they agreed earlier to an autopsy, their emotional need to complete the process and begin the mourning period takes precedence. Still, Palestinian hospitals did CT scans of the bodies. Israel’s Health Ministry spokesperson told Haaretz the deep freeze is routine and the bodies have been held by the army. The army spokesperson ignored Haaretz question with regard to the Palestinian suspicion.

A quick burial at night

Whatever Israel’s intentions, the fact that autopsies have been performed in only a few cases indicates a failure of Palestinian institutions to prepare and a lack of coordination among agencies. Whereas the Palestinian Public Prosecution Office, following the lead of human rights groups, wants autopsies, police and the liaison committee led families to believe that a quick burial was preferable.

The Jerusalem police are placing conditions for the burial of the remaining 12 bodies, and are taking cash deposits to ensure that the families stick to the conditions of a quick burial at night, not in Jerusalem but on the other side of the separation barrier.

On Monday afternoon the fathers of three of the dead men, from the village of Kafr Aqab and the Shoafat refugee camp, were summoned by the police. Each paid a 5,000-shekel ($1,275) deposit for receiving their son’s body at the Beitunia checkpoint.

One was Qassem Badran, the father of 16-year-old Ishaq, who was killed by police gunfire on October 10 after he stabbed two Israelis. Shortly before seeing his dead son in an ambulance, Badran told Haaretz the police did not agree to take any other form of payment and gave him no receipt.

A police spokeswoman refused to answer Haaretz’s questions on the police’s opposition to an autopsy, the conditions for burial, the method of paying the deposit and the amounts collected so far. She only said the “conditions imposed by the police regarding returning the bodies of terrorists are part of their responsibility for public safety and the maintenance of public order.”

Conditions for return of deposit

Since the families don’t abide by the condition of a quick nocturnal burial, the deposit isn’t returned. The father of Fadi Alloun, an Isawiyah resident who was buried two months ago, paid a 20,000-shekel deposit that wasn’t returned. He couldn’t keep the funeral small, as Israel demanded, and prevent the neighborhood’s residents from attending it. “We’re actually buying the bodies of our children from Israel,” one Kafr Aqab resident told Haaretz on Tuesday.

In Jerusalem, negotiations between the police and the families on the burials are continuing, mediated by Mahmoud, the attorney.

Families from Jabal Mukkaber tend to accept the stipulation that they bury the bodies on the other side of the separation barrier, Mahmoud said . But the families from Silwan, the Old City and Beit Hanina don’t understand why their sons can’t be buried within Jerusalem’s boundaries.

A burial lets official mourning begin. It doesn’t, however, silence the question that bothers the families, as posed by Badran. “What riles me is that they didn’t stop at shooting Ishaq in the leg,” he said. “Wound him, arrest him, put him on trial. But he was a kid. Why kill him? Didn’t you see him shivering in fear while he held that knife?”

Click the alert icon to follow topics: