Bodies of slain Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces kept in Israeli graves are identified by numbers and Human Rights Watch says they’re being used as “bargaining chips”.
On June 16, Mai Afaneh, a 29-year-old Palestinian psychiatrist who was teaching at al Istiqlal University was shot dead in her car by Israeli forces at the entrance of the town of Hizma in West Bank.
The Israeli army claims that she was attempting a car ramming attack and a knife attack as she was driving on an under-construction road.
The incident sent a double shockwave through Afaneh’s family both for the accusations that they vehemently deny, insisting that she had neither a motive nor the capacity to carry out such an attack, and for being denied her slain body. Afaneh is survived by her husband and 5-year-old daughter.
Human Rights Watch’s Israel and Palestine Director Omar Shakir points that it’s a practice that contravenes the customary international humanitarian law requirement to “endeavor to facilitate the return of the remains of the deceased upon request of the party to which they belong."
“Deliberately and unlawfully punishing the families of the deceased, who are not accused of any wrongdoing, constitutes a form of collective punishment, another serious violation of international humanitarian law,” Shakir told TRT World.
Afaneh is now among those Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli soldiers with no proof that they posed an imminent threat to anyone’s life.
“It can also amount to cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment of the families of the deceased, a violation of international human rights law.”
On June 23 last year, a 26-year-old Palestinian, Ahmad Erekat was killed by Israeli forces at an occupied West Bank checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Israeli account claims he intended to run over an officer when his car hit a booth while driving through the checkpoint. His family says planning such an attack would have been “impossible” as he was getting married later in the week. A Forensic Architecture investigation later refuted Israeli claims that he was justifiably gunned down.
Palestinian bodies as bargaining chips
According to the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC), Israel held the bodies of 67 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces between 2015 and 2020. With the additional killings that took place this year, that number is likely to be higher. For their families, not being able to bury their dead means having no closure and often leads to years-long court battles.
An Israeli security cabinet approved decision is behind the policy. Regardless of their political affiliation or lack thereof, Palestinians killed by Israel under suspicion of planning attacks are considered “militants”, and they must be buried in military cemeteries throughout the country. Instead of using their names, Israel assigns anonymous numbers to each body to identify their graves in cemeteries - and some in refrigerators.
Opening investigations into the killings that could challenge these claims by the Israeli army is not a common practice.
HRW’s Shakir said this policy is in large part used “as a deterrent and leverage to secure the release of two Israeli civilians and the bodies of two Israeli soldiers evidently held by Hamas authorities, unlawfully, in Gaza.”
By international law, every family has the right to receive the bodies of their loved ones regardless of if a slain Palestinian is guilty of what they’ve been accused of.
In the past, Israel agreed to return the bodies of some slain Palestinians, when Tel Aviv was attempting to revive peace talks. The release of 90 Palestinian bodies in 2012 and 27 more in the following two years were some of the rare exceptions to the rule. Categorised by number, identifying the bodies of Palestinians is another struggle even when steps have been taken to return them.
“This policy, which prevents families from burying their loved ones in a dignified manner, is cruel and without legal justification,” Shakir said.
“Israeli and Hamas authorities should end their inhumane policies of holding bodies as bargaining chips. At bare minimum, every family should have the opportunity to bury their dead in a dignified manner.”