Israel's Body Transfer Debacle Likely to Damage Palestinian Trust

Confused handling turns trust-building into an embarrassing incident.

Confused handling by the Prime Minister's Office, the defense minister's office and the Israel Defense Forces over Israel's proposed transfer of the bodies of Palestinian terrorists has turned an attempt to make a gesture toward the Palestinians into an embarrassing incident.

The foul-up will apparently also damage whatever trust remains between Israel and the Palestinians.

barak - Ariel Harmoni / Meshar - July 6 2011
Ariel Harmoni / Meshar

On Monday, a Palestinian Authority minister announced that the PA expected to receive the bodies of 84 Palestinian terrorists from Israel. This was confirmed by the Prime Minister's Office and the IDF Spokesman's Office.

But after the Palestinians released a list of names of the terrorists, which included senior figures in Hamas and suicide bombers, the Israeli public raised objections. The protests caused Defense Minister Ehud Barak late Tuesday evening to announce that he was halting the transfer.

The Israeli turnabout may not be particularly important in itself. It is doubtful it will have long-term implications on the peace process or negotiations for the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit, which is apparently entirely unconnected to the handover of the terrorists' bodies.

Still, the proposed handover is important because of the great sensitivity in Israel over anything presented as a gesture to terrorists or their families, and also because of the perception of repeated mismanagement by senior officials.

Tuesday morning, senior cabinet members angrily demanded an explanation about the handling of the matter. "The Palestinians are going to the United Nations and we're making gestures to them without thinking about it for one second and without any discussion," said one senior minister.

A day earlier, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had not attached great importance to the issue, even saying that Israel did not engage in the trade of bodies. But he began to understand the controversy and sent his national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, to speak to the media. This only reinforced the sense of embarrassment over the shift in the government's position.

"Three months ago a decision was made in principle and the working teams began the process," Amidror told Army Radio. "Until is was reported in the press, the prime minister was not aware of this list [of terrorists]. That's perhaps a result of work vis-a-vis the Palestinians at the technical levels of execution that never went up to the political level. There is no date for the transfer of the bodies, and there is no approval for their transfer. The Palestinians released the names. That's what they would want to receive, but that's not what we agreed to give."

Barak attributed the foul-up to junior-level staff, asking that the matter not be blown out of proportion. "I've put the talks on hold on the issue until we again examine who the bodies to be transferred are," he said.

The Shin Bet security service also denied any connection to the matter, even though a day earlier an IDF source said the Shin Bet had been involved all along. "In January, they asked for our position on the matter, and we made it clear we objected to returning bodies of Hamas and Islamic Jihad activists," a Shin Bet source said. No one mentioned specific names, Shin Bet sources added.

IDF sources placed the blame Tuesday on the army's Central Command and the IDF Civil Administration in the West Bank, saying that faulty handling of the matter with the Palestinians and a failure to keep relevant officials informed caused the problem. The Civil Administration provided the Palestinians with a list of 84 dead terrorists, but the Palestinians thought this meant Israel had agreed to transfer their bodies, an IDF source said.

And less than a day after Barak said the matter had been put on hold with the Palestinians, the defense minister's office said in a statement that contacts on the matter would continue. In any event, Barak has vetoed handing over the bodies of about 10 terrorists from Hamas and Islamic Jihad and the transfer of the bodies of terrorists who had lived in the Gaza Strip.

The initiative to hand over the bodies was first made at the end of last year by the IDF, for practical reasons. The Jordan Valley cemetery for terrorists was full, and not all the bodies were in coffins, raising concerns that it would be impossible to identify which remains belonged to which terrorists.

The Netanyahu government at the time was seeking to renew negotiations with the Palestinians, and the return of the bodies was raised as a possible confidence-building measure. The Shin Bet expressed support on condition that the bodies were only of Fatah-affiliated people from the West Bank.

The IDF won approval at the government level to begin working on the matter, but contacts with the Palestinians were put on hold in April with the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas. The talks resumed in May, and the Palestinians gave Israel a list of more than 180 names of dead terrorists whose bodies it was seeking to hand over.

The IDF identified the bodies of 84 people. On Sunday, the head of the IDF Civil Administration, Brig. Gen. Moti Almoz, met with Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh, mainly to discuss preparations for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, but Almoz also gave Sheikh the list of 84 names. The Palestinians apparently understood that the list constituted an agreement that the bodies would be handed over, not simply that they had been identified.

On Monday, Sheikh told Palestinian journalists that an agreement for the bodies to be turned over had been reached with Israel. After Israeli officials were flooded with media inquiries, it was decided to issue a statement from the IDF spokesman, coordinated with the offices of the prime minister and the defense minister. The release said that Netanyahu had agreed to the transfer of the bodies.

What was apparently not coordinated by the various offices, however, was which names were on the list, but neither the Prime Minister's Office nor the defense minister's office seemed to take major interest in the matter.

It was only after the Palestinians released a list that included senior Hamas figures who were responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israelis, including, for example, Hanadi Jaradat, that public protest erupted. Jaradat blew herself up at the Maxim Restaurant in Haifa in 2003, killing 21 people.