Present Absentees Even When Dead, and the Right to a Dignified Burial

“The fact that we did not bury our children, and the fact that they are prisoners of the Israelis even as dead bodies kill us all every day….I feel I die a hundred times every day.”

“I ask myself…did he really die? Burying him would provide a closure.”

“To bury your own child is the hardest thing ever…and all I want and pray for is to bury my child.”

“He appeared in my dreams, he was begging me….‘Mom….please take me back home.’”

“How did I reach here…waiting for the Israelis to give back my son’s body, yearning to see my own child buried.”

“They are terrorizing us using the dead bodies of our children…they want us to lose hope, to leave…they aim at uprooting us, like in 1948.”

“They are telling us, you are under our control, in life and in death…we decide when and how you die, when and whether your children can be buried in Jerusalem….and if we have any right to mere breathing.”

These are the voices of bereaved Palestinian parents who have lost their children in occupied East Jerusalem since October 2015. During the past 6 months, occupied East Jerusalem has been characterized by the harrowing presence of settler colonial violence and atrocities, not only through the Israeli state’s implementation of a “shoot to kill” policy against Palestinians, but also through the marking of the dead bodies of Palestinian martyrs as additional sites of punishment and dispossession.

A Palestinian mother explained: “I could not protect him while he was alive… [the Israelis] killed him in cold blood…it is legal to kill Palestinians under their regime…my son was calling for help when he was executed, but they claim he is a terrorist. And now, even after his execution, after he became a dead body… I also can’t defend him…I can’t hug him for the last time, I can’t bury him in the old city, in our graveyard.”

A Palestinian father stated: “I need to apologize to my daughter. I need to tell her that we all love her, and that I wish I was there to prevent her execution…I need to whisper in her ears that they could never kill her in our hearts…but they play politics over our children’s dead bodies, they want to demolish our house, they want to uproot us, they even want to uproot and displace her dead body…they want to torture her and torture us by depriving us from dignifying her, even when dead.”

In listening to Palestinian parents describing the pain they go through knowing that they cannot receive the bodies of their dead children, and hearing their torment when discovering that they lost a child, we can better understand how the Israeli juridical and political structure, with its colonial logic, maintains living and dead Palestinians in spaces of elimination. As one young mother said: “Is there anything harder than losing a child? Show me a mother in the world that wants to bury her own children. Nothing is as torturous and painful as losing a child.”

Israeli forces stipulate that the funeral takes place at night, with a limited number of attendees the funerals, and each family is required to pay a specific amount as collateral. The Palestinian community’s reaction to the indignity inscribed over Palestinian dead bodies, when the state refuses to give the bodies of martyrs to their families to bury them, keeps Palestinians in exile and as “present-absentees” even after death.

The Israeli settler-colonial state patrols the burial place of Palestinian dead bodies, disfranchises martyrs from their human rights to dignity and a proper burial, and deprives their families and communities of the opportunity to attain emotional closure after such horrible and sudden loss.

We are calling on the international community and regional powers to stand against the criminalization and collective punishment of an entire society, and the arbitrary abuses of power that unfold even after death.

“I want my son back,” screamed Samia, the mother of a young man killed by Israeli security forces whose body is being withheld. “I can’t close my eyes at night, I hear him calling me, asking me to bring him back home…I hear him telling me “Yamma [mother] get me out of this fridge”…did you ever witness a mother begging to bury her son?….I am.” Samia’s words and the pain that they portray suggest that we call on the world to assist us in refusing the torturing and displacement of our dead.

The voices of parents, and our pleas as Jerusalemite women, mothers, and community members, call upon local, regional and international actors to stand against the confinement and indignities enacted by the state against soon-to-die, dead and living bodies and lives.

As one of the bereaved fathers explained: “In 1948, they killed my uncle in cold blood because he tried to come back home, and we never knew where he was buried….now, they have killed my son, and again, they do not want us to bury him here in Jerusalem, and they are withholding his body in the fridge….this is more than painful to me….are we not parents? Are we not humans? We need our children Time in death, time to mourn, to comprehend the loss, to let go of those we love – time in death is meaningful. Israeli governance of Palestinians’ right to mourn the dead is a violation of this most sacred human right.”

We, the coalition for Palestinian Jerusalemite Women, call on the world to defend parents, families, and communities; call on the world to stop Israel’s criminality; and call for the return of our children’s dead bodies. The policies enacted by the Israeli regime since its onset in 1948, intended to maintain our status as “infiltrators” and “present-absentees” in life and in death, is traumatizing our community and further entrenching racist hierarchies, invading the most intimate spaces of life even after death.

The complex texture of the Israeli matrix of power, which refuses to return the bodies of dead children to their parents, silences even the voices of the dead – marking Palestinian dead bodies as penal sites of exile, criminalizing the dead and the living, and punishing them both. Our collective stance against such eviction challenges Israel’s necropolitical ideology, refusing to maintain Jerusalem as a traumatizing detention center for Palestinians, but rather envisioning it as a place for liberation and the right to life and a dignified burial.

December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
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