Since 1967 Israel has maintained an unofficial policy of detaining Palestinian and Arab war victims in mass graves and cemeteries. Today at last 348 bodies are held prisoner by the Israeli government their families unable to retrieve their remains.
In a traditional conflict, the bodies of the deceased would be returned to their country of origin following peace and removal of the occupying power. Israel refuses to return the bodies to their families, some of whom have been waiting for decades, on the basis that the conflict is temporary and withholding the remains is necessary to maintain internal security.
Yet as the occupation enters its 46th year and with no end in sight, the Israeli government still retains nearly 350 bodies despite numerous appeals to the Israeli court and international condemnation of the practice. JLAC, The Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, heads up the campaign to release Arab war victims and disclose the fate of those missing. In an interview on Thursday July 11th, at the JLAC office in Ramallah Palestine, lawyer Haytham Khatib explained the motives behind Israel withholding these bodies.
“The rational behind this policy is a security condition, or a security pretext. Israeli considers all of them [deceased combatants] as terrorists, not fighter and soldiers and therefore the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of enemy dead do not apply.”
Khatib went on to say “Israel recognizes the importance of funeral and religious practices for Arab peoples, as well as the importance of Martyrs in Palestinian society.” Withholding the remains enacts a “collective punishment” against the families of fighters as well as providing a potential deterrent against future resistance.
This practice of withholding remains is consistent with Israeli attempts throughout history to present its activities in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) within the context of perpetual war. As Israeli historian Ilan Pappe wrote in his book The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine, this context presents actions “In such a manner, that all activities, including atrocities are portrayed as part of a theater of war, wherein things are judged on a moral basis in a manner very different from the ways they would be treated in non-combatant situation.” In this case the imprisonment of the remains of dead combatants is understood as a necessary wartime practice instead of a colony policy designed to exact a toll on those that have resisted the occupation.
According to JLAC’s campaign coordinator Salem Khilleh, the organization has documented 442 cases of deceased combatants, including 66 that are still missing (assumed dead). 416 of the 442 cases are Palestinian, the rest Arab combatants from neighboring countries who died while fighting in Palestine. The majority of these victims are PLO fighters who engaged in direct combat with Israeli forces but also include those that died while serving prison sentences, in direct clashes with IDF, killed or missing while crossing border and a few that died in terrorists attacks against Israeli civilians.
The deceased are held in secret cemeteries located in closed military zones. So far only four of these so-called “cemeteries of numbers” have been identified, the exact number of deceased combatants is impossible to know given that Israel has net released information on how many bodies it retains. Salem Khilleh describes these cemeteries: “there are no names just iron bars with numbers corresponding to info on the deceased, the graves are small and shallow often containing multiple bodies.” Prior to 1976 deceased were buried without any clear Israeli policy or process, the bodies left unidentified. Many of the deceased were placed in mass graves in shallow sandy soil running the risk of exposure and animal disturbance.
In August of 2008 JLAC began its campaign to retrieve the bodies of the dead and disclose the fate of those missing. According to Salem the idea for the campaign began when one of the parents of a deceased soldier contacted JLAC. “He was 85 at the time; his last wish was to retrieve the body of his son, “ Salem recalled the elderly man saying.
The campaigns first success came with the release of the remains of Mashour Taleb Saleh who was killed 1976 in a PLO guerilla operation in Israel. In 2010, after a successful petition by JLAC to the Israeli Supreme Court, the Israeli Authority released Mashour’s remains to his family, some 33 years after his death.
In an interview in 2010 Mashour’s brother spoke about the Israeli policy. “Confiscating corpses is an immoral policy, the dead are dead. This is punishment for both the living and the deceased. It’s a policy of revenge; there is no law that allows anyone to retain a corps as prisoner for decades.” Since 2010 JLAC has successfully secured the release of 92 other bodies and is petitioning for the release and disclosure of all remaining deceased combatants along with the missing.
In a report submitted to the United Nations in 2009, JLAC exposes Israel continued violation of international law and the “the inappropriate and disrespectful actions practiced on human bodies. ” Conventional and customary International Humanitarian Law has determined that contesting parties in armed conflict, whether international or domestic, must respect the dead whether killed in the battlefield or died while in detention. Bodies must be collected, evacuated, buried in properly marked graves and their families must be notified. Moreover, the return of dead bodies to the party that they belong to or upon the request of their next of kin is an international obligation duly recognized under international customary law and relevant treaties.
Israeli actions constitute a direct violation of international Law and Article 17, 120, 130 of the Geneva Convention that outline the criteria for treatment of enemy bodies.
Graves are not adequately maintained and bodies are buried in areas at high risk of exposure. Tombs are not properly marked and families are unaware of their location, bared from visiting their loved ones. Furthermore as Khilleh notes that prior to the 1st of September 1976, “None of the cases were documented, identified or filed. Some of the bodes were used to harvest organs and as cadavers for medical students, while the conditions of the graves have made it impossible to identify some of the returned remains. These actions show a severe and criminal disrespect for the bodies of the deceased.”
Yet throughout the conflict Israeli has considered itself within its legal right to retain the remains of these war victims, defining all forms of resistance to the occupation as terrorism. The Israeli governments treatment of the Palestinian dead is consistent with numerous policies in the West Bank where supposed security threats supplant international law. The expansive nature of the term security in Israeli is used to rationalize the imprisonment of the dead and the living. According to the Palestinian Prisoners rights association Addameer, more than 800,000 Palestinian have been incarcerated in Israeli jails since the onset of the occupation in 1967, thousands of which held in administrative detention without charge or trail.
The unofficial Israeli policy of withholding the bodies of Arab and Palestinian war victims, if viewed in comparison to other wartime conflicts, is consistent with international law. However it is important to contextualize this violence within the reality of the conflict itself. Israel continual retention of the Palestinian dead is not a byproduct of war but a form collective punishment for resisting colonialism. Israel’s policy to withhold the remains of enemy combatants is consistent with the State’s narrative of perpetual war. This narrative aims to present the conflict as a battle between competing powers, not the asymmetrical struggle against the ongoing occupation and Judaization of the oPt. The inability for Palestinian and Arab families to burry and honor their loved ones reflects a gross violation of their rights and an extension of Israeli control over the bodies of the living and the deceased. For these Palestinians the occupation extends to the grave.
Sam Gilbert writes about the Middle East.