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Israel's Cynical Exploitation of Palestinian Dead Bodies

Hagai El-Ad
Hagai El-Ad
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The funeral of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, who was killed in 2017 in Umm al-Hiran.
The funeral of Yakub Abu al-Kiyan, who was killed in 2017 in Umm al-Hiran.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Hagai El-Ad
Hagai El-Ad

The dead Yakub Abu al-Kiyan isn’t just a good Arab. He’s a useful Arab. And he’s far from alone.

First, the prime minister, public security minister (at the time) and the police commissioner (at the time) proclaimed that the dead Abu al-Kiyan was a terrorist. In so doing, they justified not only the violent, pseudo-military operation in January 2017 in which hundreds of police raided his village, Umm al-Hiran, to demolish it and build a community for Jews there, but with one quick lie they were able to whitewash everything: the gunfire directed at Abu al-Kiyan when he was slowly driving his car, leaving him to bleed to death, the demolition of his home and his village, and the wild incitement against Arab lawmakers.

Anyone who cast doubt on these lies or simply raised questions was denounced as a terrorism supporter. After all, a good Arab is a dead Arab, and the body of this dead Arab was maximally exploited by Benjamin Netanyahu, Gilad Erdan and Roni Alsheich. They used him and tossed him aside, until just recently, when Netanyahu conjured up the late Abu al-Kiyan again to use his body once more – this time for other purposes.

Three and a half years after his death, the prime minister found a new use for his body, as part of his efforts to save his own skin from his approaching trial. Netanyahu may like to incite against Arabs, but he’s eager to avoid justice. And so he cynically pulled Abu al-Kiyan’s body out of its grave to hurl it at Alsheich and the state prosecutor.

Only Netanyahu would behave so repulsively and use a dead body as currency this way, you’ll say. Decent people don’t behave like this. Even cynicism has its limits, and no one stretches them like Netanyahu. Reasonable public leaders wouldn’t do that. That’s the kind of thing only a desperate Netanyahu would do.

But it’s not just Netanyahu. The cynical exploitation of dead bodies is not merely the whim of a prime minister who’ll do anything. There are dead Arabs that are pulled from the grave and there are those whose families are prevented from burying them: This is official Israeli policy. And who is leading the escalation of this policy right now? Mr. Moderation himself, the champion of the rule of law, the prince of the middle way – Defense Minister Benny Gantz.

According to figures from the human rights group B’Tselem, Israel is holding the bodies of at least 60 Palestinians who committed attacks, or whom the army says attempted to commit them, since September 2015. The declared purpose why the bodies are being amassed is to use them as bargaining chips in future negotiations. Useful dead bodies.

Gantz did not invent anything new here, of course. This policy was around for years, and underwent various evolutions and vague changes, until in early 2017, just weeks before that night in Umm al-Hiran, the cabinet officially decided for the first time that these bodies would be held hostage for bargaining purposes and not returned to the families.

The decision then focused on the bodies of “Hamas-affiliated terrorists.” The more recent cabinet decision, at the start of the month, expanded this cruel policy beyond this affiliation, in response to a petition regarding the return of the body of Ahmed Erekat, which Israel has been holding since June 23. Erekat is not “Hamas-affiliated.” Under the previous policy, Erekat’s body would not be used for bargaining purposes but returned to his family for burial.

Ahmed Mustafa Erekat.

Gantz, who boasted of spearheading the move, welcomed the cabinet decision: “I suggest that our enemies really grasp the message.” But what exactly is the message? That there isn’t a single politician in the government leadership who isn’t willing to use the dead bodies, to trade in them and exploit them? This horror is not happening in the shadows. It is attached to cabinet decisions and public announcements. It is subject to repeated – and public – legal examination by the attorney general, the state prosecutor and the Supreme Court justices. What will happen now? Thanks to the moderate Gantz, the policy has been escalated, the government has informed the court, and it will be up to the High Court of Justice to decide.

Don’t hold your breath. After the January 2017 cabinet decision, there was already a petition against holding dead bodies, which was ostensibly accepted. But rather than simply ruling that there can be no trading in dead bodies, the judicial panel headed by Justice Yoram Danziger opted to rule (in December 2017) that such trade is certainly possible, as long as there is a law that explicitly grants the government this appalling authority.

In the absence of such a law, the justices gave the state six months to advance the necessary legislation. The state requested another hearing before a larger panel to argue that it already had such authority and no further legislation was required. The expanded panel, headed by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, granted the state’s request.

In one of the more shameful sections of her September 2018 ruling, Hayut explained, “We must remember that the holding of the bodies is temporary” and that she “believes that this does not constitute a violation of the core of the right for dignity of the dead or the core of the right to dignity of the family.” Netanyahu, Gantz, Hayut: It’s not shame that must be buried in the ground, but the dead.

Hagai El-Ad is the executive director of B’Tselem.

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