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Israel angers Palestinians with refusal to hand over attackers' bodies

Hamas members in Gaza
Hamas members in Gaza Reuters

Israel on Sunday said it would stop handing over the bodies of Palestinians killed in attacks in an effort to force Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, to hand over the bodies of Israelis it has killed or captured. The decision has angered Palestinians and some experts warn it could backfire.


The Israeli authorities said that the Palestinians' bodies would be buried, rather than being handed over to their families, sparking protests from Hamas, the families and Palestinian human rights activists.

“It is a bad start for the year 2017,” says Raji Sourani, the director of the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, pointing to the fact that the practice of not returning bodies to families is not new.

“It was in place for years and years,” he told RFI, claiming that the Israeli army kept the bodies in their “autopsy department”.

The difference this time is that it has become official policy.

“Of course, according to all recognised international standards, this is undignified and illegal,” he says.

Israeli activists want tougher action

In Israel, too, the reaction was negative, but not for the same reason.

“The decision was made too late and [it is] not enough,” says Meir Indor, director of Almagor, an association that represents victims of attacks.

“Every terrorist who came to kill and who was killed on the way should be buried in a cemetery that nobody knows about,” he says, pointing out that this was what happened to Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for the transport of millions of Jews to German’s concentration camps during World War II.

After the war, Eichmann fled to Latin America but was captured by an Israeli commando team and brought to trial in Israel.

“His body was burned and we threw what was left in the Mediterranean,” says Indor. “A terrorist who is going to kill innocent people should know that he will not be brought to a cemetery, of course not to his family, his body will be dismissed.”

Israel stops sending back killed militants

Palestinians wonder about is how many deceased militants are buried in Israel.

“The conflict between Israel and Palestine dates back to 1947,” says Sourani, adding that, even if Israel sometimes returned bodies, it has often kept them.

“They have what is called 'the grave of numbers', where they keep many, many Palestinians inside for the last 50 years,” he claims, saying that the bodies of Palestinian attackers are given a simple burial “without any ceremony”.

According to Sourani, only numbers mark the graves. “The names are with the Israeli army somewhere, nobody has access or knows who these people are.”

Decision could backfire

To institutionalise the policy of not returning bodies to their families may backfire, some experts warn.

“In the recent past, Israel was returning bodies of militants and made conditions,” says Avram Diskin, a political scientist with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“Terrorists are celebrated by Palestinians, so Israel wanted the funerals to be modest - respectable but modest and not to turn into some kind of incitement.

[But] it can turn against Israel because it gives the opportunity to Palestinians to say, "Look, Israel is inhumane."

Even if the decision may be bad PR for Israel and trigger international criticism, in less than three weeks time, Israel will have a powerful new backer in the person of the new US president, Donald Trump, and any controversial decisions taken now may be overshadowed by the new US-Israeli relationship.

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