Israel Has Amassed 68 Palestinian Bodies as Bargaining Chips Since 2016

The exception was the body of Noor Shuqeir, who was shot dead on suspicion of carrying out a car-ramming attack. The body was ultimately returned to his family, indicating Israel realizes there was no foul play

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Palestinians demonstrating at a protest calling for the release of bodies of Palestinians held by Israeli authorities, in Hebron on August 30, 2020.
A protest calling for the release of bodies of Palestinians, in Hebron, in August.Credit: Mussa Issa Qawasma/Reuters

Noor Shuqeir, who was killed last Wednesday by Border Police at a Jerusalem checkpoint, was buried on Sunday in Jerusalem.  

According to the police, officers shot Shuqeir, a resident of the predominately Arab neighborhood of Silwan in East Jerusalem, after he was suspected of perpetrating a car-ramming attack. His body was held a few days by Israeli authorities, in line with the current policy of not returning bodies of suspected Palestinian attackers to their facilities. The fact that Shuqeir’s body was ultimately returned to his family indicates that the authorities have likely accepted the stance maintained by his family and friends – Shuqeir did not intend to commit an attack.

Since April 2016, Israel has added 68 more bodies of Palestinians to those it refuses to return for burial to their families, which it is holding for purposes of bargaining or deterrence.

Among the bodies are those of seven men who died of illness during incarceration over the past four years, including one detainee who had not even been tried. The total number of bodies held by Israel is unknown but estimates are as high as a few hundred.

Israel returned about 400 bodies between 1991 and 2008 as part of various exchange deals with the Palestinians and with Hezbollah.

Since January 2020, Israeli authorities have added 17 more Palestinian bodies to the total already being held. Just this month, three additional bodies were added to the list: Noor Shquir from Silwan, who was suspected of perpetrating a vehicle-ramming attack at the A-Zaim checkpoint last week and was shot by a Border Police officer; Bilal Rawajba, from the village of Iraq al-Taya, east of Nablus, a legal adviser in the Palestinian preventive security force who was killed by Israel Defense Forces soldiers claiming he fired a gun at them; and Kamal Abu Waer of Qabatiyah, who died of cancer while serving a life sentence.

Abu Waer, a member of Fatah, was convicted of murdering Israelis in the West Bank early in the second intifada. In July he contracted coronavirus and recovered, the Israel Prison Service reported. It also reported that “his body was transferred to the responsibility of the Israel Police on the day he was declared dead, at Assaf Harofeh Hospital.”

Another inmate who died in Israel and whose body is being held by the authorities is Daud al-Khatib of Bethlehem, also a member of Fatah. He died in September of a heart attack, four months before his scheduled release after serving a jail term of 18 years.

The oldest among the 68 whose body has not been returned is Sa’ad Gharbali, 75, of the Gaza Strip, who died in July of cancer. He received a life sentence in 1994 for murdering an Israeli and was affiliated with Hamas.

The detainee who had not yet been put on trial was Nassar Taqatqa, 27, who died in July in quarantine in the Nitzan Prison’s infirmary, after being interrogated by the Shin Bet security service.

The Al-Quds Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, which represents some of the families whose relatives' bodies have not been brought back to them, said that to the best of its knowledge, some of the bodies have been buried and others are being stored in freezers in Israel.

This past September the security cabinet approved a decision by Defense Minister Benny Gantz to retain possession of the body of anyone who was suspected of participating in an attack on Israelis or who had carried out such an attack, regardless of their political affiliation. Gantz adopted the position of his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, as a means to wield pressure on Hamas to return the bodies of Israeli soldiers killed in the 2014 war on Gaza.

Both Bennett and Gantz promoted a more extreme policy than that determined by the cabinet in 2017, which stated that “bodies of terrorists can be returned under restrictive conditions decided by security officials,” while bodies of “terrorists associated with Hamas” and “terrorists who carried out particularly extreme acts of terror” would be buried in Israel in a special cemetery.

Six Palestinian families petitioned the High Court of Justice against the 2017 cabinet decision. The state claimed that it was acting based on emergency defense regulations. In a majority decision, the court decided that year in favor of the families, ruling that the regulations in question do not authorize the state to hold onto bodies for purposes of negotiation. The justices gave the state six months to try to pass legislation that would authorize it to retain possession of the bodies, but instead the state countered with a demand for another hearing before a special High Court panel.

At that hearing, in September 2017, the majority ruled that the law indeed grants the state the authority to hold bodies for purposes of negotiation, thus paving the road to the present policy.

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