Tuesday, December 01, 2020

After Supreme Court rules Israel can withhold bodies, Palestinians push to fight internationally

By Yehudit Tzfat - October 28, 2019
Section: [Main News] [Features]
Tags: [Human rights]

On 18 April 2016, Abd al-Hamid Abu Srour told his mom he was going out to buy ice cream and promised he would be back soon. Not too long after Abd left, a bus in Jerusalem exploded. Abd did not come home that night.

Abd was allegedly responsible for the bus bombing. 

“I believe we have to resist this occupation, but I could never imagine that my son would do that,” Azhar Abu Srour, Abd’s mother, said. 

The 19-year-old succumbed to his wounds in the hospital. Now his remains lie in Israel’s infamous “cemeteries of numbers”, a site where Israel keeps an estimated 253 bodies belonging to Palestinians and Arab war victims. Instead of a name on a tombstone, these “numbered graves” simply have a number affixed to a metal plate on the grave. 

His family is not able to visit his grave nor able to see DNA results confirming the body is Abd’s.

“My son is alive until you say that he’s died,” Azhar said.

In September, the Israeli Supreme Court reversed an earlier ruling affirming the state does not have the authority to withhold bodies for negotiation purposes. The 4-3 majority ruling held that Israeli emergency regulations allow the military to keep bodies of deemed enemies for security purposes and as a negotiation tool for the return of Israeli soldiers’ remains from Hamas.

In 2017, the Israeli Security Cabinet passed a resolution declaring that bodies associated with Hamas or bodies belonging to “terrorists who perpetrated a particularly heinous terrorist attack” will not be returned to families. Relatives of Palestinians who allegedly committed such attacks filed a High Court petition against this decision. Israel initially claimed that it can hold bodies under Regulation 133(3) of the Defence (Emergency) Regulations. But Justice Yoram Danziger found this regulation does not give the state the power to withhold bodies for use as bargaining chips.

However, instead of returning the bodies to families, Danziger gave the state six months to pass a law preventing the return of remains. Instead of new legislation, Israel filed a motion for an additional hearing which resulted in this latest Supreme Court ruling. Palestinian rights organisations slammed the decision, stating it amounts to collective punishment and a grave violation of international law.

“The court ruling is in violation of Israeli law and violates international law, most notably the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment,” Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel — said in a statement

“It opens the door for additional violations of international law in this sense,” Suhad Bishara, an attorney with Adalah representing Azhar’s case, said. Azhar’s family was one of the petitioners.

While the estimated number is 253, Budour Hassan, a legal researcher at Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre (JLAC), said her organisation believes the number is higher.

“Many of the bodies are not acknowledged,” Hassan said, explaining that since 1967 a period existed in Israel’s history where they did not document the bodies. 


“Now the numbers that are still currently held according to The National Campaign to Retrieve War Victims and Unravel the Fate of Those Missing is 253, in addition to 18 who were killed during the Gaza War in 2014 and 68 who are missing,” Hassan said. The location of the cemeteries is kept secret by Israel.

Pictures of Abd adorn the walls of Azhar’s home in Beit Jala. She wears a golden pendant with a photo of Abd smiling around her neck. 

“So many things happened that made him angry,” Azhar said. “I said if he did that, you have to ask yourself why.”

Two months before Abd purportedly committed the suicide attack, his cousin was killed by Israeli soldiers for throwing stones. Azhar acknowledged her son was always angry about the women and children murdered by Israeli forces, but she never thought he would resort to terrorism. 

“He had everything in his life, why did he do that?” Azhar said.

While Abd was politically active, Azhar described him as a normal kid who loved animals and children and was finishing his studies in pursuit of attending university. None of Abd’s friends or relatives suspected he might be associating with Hamas or planning a suicide attack. Both Israel and the military wing of Hamas, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, said he was a part of the organisation.  

“I think he was very angry about what happened and refused this life, what occupation does in our country,” Azhar said. 

A legacy of martyrdom haunts Azhar’s family. Her father was killed in Lebanon by an Israeli plane during the 1981 Lebanon War. 

“A BBC journalist once asked if I was proud that Abd did this, I said that if I say no, he would be sad,” Azhar said. As she spoke, the strip of ash at the end of her cigarette grew wider. She constantly looked away and down at the floor, remembering how Abd slept so peacefully before his death. Tears formed in the corner of her pale blue eyes. “He must have been strong to do this,” she said, leaning back in her chair, a look of disbelief across her face. 

“We think everything is finished in [the Israeli court] so now it’s better to be international,” Azhar said and Hassan agreed. With this final Supreme Court decision, JLAC is hoping to raise awareness internationally to make a change. 

JLAC recently finished a report stating how this policy violates international law and comparing it to cases in Spain, Ireland and Latin America “to mobilise more international attention especially in countries that have felt the same pain or are struggling with similar issues.” Hassan paralleled the current issue of withholding Palestinian bodies to that of The Disappeared, individuals who were abducted, murdered and secretly buried during the Northern Ireland Troubles. Hassan hopes JLAC’s research will be published before the end of the year. 

JLAC is also contacting global organisations like the International Committee for the Red Cross to adhere to its mandate to help victims of armed conflict and demand Israel release the bodies. Hassan asserted that beyond the framework of international law, the family’s right to know and bury their relatives provides closure during the grieving process.

“How much it means to them, how much they keep imagining that their loved ones are still alive because they can’t even process the loss, they can’t even mourn, they can’t even know whether they actually died,” Hassan said. 

“There’s this sort of inkling of doubt and uncertainty that always hovers over the entire process because you can’t talk about processing grief when you don’t even have a physical, tangible evidence of a body to go to and put flowers on the grave.”

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