The Israeli obsession with controlling Palestinians and keeping them under surveillance is not limited to the living, but also includes the dead. This is epitomized by the practice of withholding Palestinian bodies, a form of posthumous revenge perpetrated on rebellious Palestinians.
Unofficially halted in 2004, toward the end of the second Intifada, the practice was revived by Israel’s security cabinet last October as part of a package of punitive measures against Palestinians.
These punitive measures, which also included the demolition of suspected attackers’ homes, were aimed at quelling a nascent Palestinian uprising in Jerusalem and corroding its social base of support through naked repression and intimidation. Needless to say, such punishments are exclusively reserved for Palestinians.
Withholding the bodies of slain Palestinian resistance fighters is not just about punishing them and their families. It does not only seek to subject the families to a draining cycle of emotional blackmail and psychological torment, it also seeks to reassert control over Palestinian bodies and space, including Palestinian corpses and burial sites.
Withholding bodies is an emergency tactic employed by Israel when its perceived sense of sovereignty over Palestinian lives comes under threat. As a result, its use intensifies during periods of turmoil when Palestinians challenge Israel’s apparatus of control and surveillance and shake the oppressive status quo that slowly suffocates them and grinds them down.
Since the youth uprising began last October, Israeli forces have withheld the bodies of about 90 Palestinians in total, the highest rate in 15 years.
While most bodies were eventually released and handed over to their families for burial, this was only possible after popular Palestinian pressure, including several mass protests in the West Bank city of Hebron.
Additionally, conditions were attached to the release of bodies. The conditions were especially strict in the case of martyrs from Jerusalem. Israel ordered their families to hold the funeral of their loved ones at night and restrict the numbers of participants to only 30 or 40.
Funerals ... transcend personal sadness and politicize grief, transmuting it into a revolutionary and collective act.
Funerals of martyrs in Jerusalem are among the rare occasions where Palestinians can reclaim the streets of their city and transform mourning into anger and protest. They transcend personal sadness and politicize grief, transmuting it into a revolutionary and collective act. The power of this collective grief constitutes a threat to Israel’s false sense of hegemony and as such, it has to be contained and suppressed. The symbolic power that the martyr espouses carries the capacity to mobilize people without the need for any call to action and regardless of political affiliation.
Thus, withholding the bodies of martyrs and only allowing few family members to take part in the funerals aim to contain the symbolic power of the martyr on the one hand, and to privatize grief and eradicate its revolutionary force on the other.
The restriction sends a message to subversive Palestinians that even after their death, Israel can sentence them to a post-mortem detention that will only end according to Israel’s own conditions.
The problem for Israel, however, lies in the fact that Palestinians often refuse to follow the script carefully written by their oppressor.
Tactics used to placate Palestinians and crush their resolve often end up empowering them. The funeral of Alaa Abu Jamal serves as a case in point.
On May 23, Israeli police finally agreed to release the body of Abu Jamal, slain in October after killing an Israeli settler.
The compromise came after Israel’s High Court ordered the police to release the withheld bodies of Palestinian Jerusalemites before the beginning of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan, pending severe restrictions.
The body of Abu Jamal, a native of the Jerusalem village of Jabal al-Mukabber, was to be buried late Monday night. Only 40 people were allowed to attend his funeral.
Desperate to bury their son after eight months of excruciating delay, the family of Abu Jamal agreed to the repressive conditions. The residents of Jabal al-Mukabber, however, did not.
In an act of civil disobedience, hundreds of Palestinians turned up to the funeral, chanting Abu Jamal’s name and vowing to resist the Israeli occupation. While heavy military presence prevented them from entering the cemetery where Abu Jamal was buried, their mere presence represented a blow to Israel’s sense of control. Not only did they challenge the ban and defy police orders, they reiterated that grief is a powerful form of public dissent that extends far beyond the martyr’s own family.
Unsurprisingly, Palestinians were punished for disobeying the master’s orders. Hours following Abu Jamal’s funeral, Israel’s Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan ordered a halt on the return of the remaining withheld bodies, describing the funeral as outrageous. Making matters worse, Israel’s newly-appointed Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman issued an order on June 9 freezing the return of all Palestinian bodies killed during suspected attacks against Israelis. The decision was announced following a shooting attack in Tel Aviv that left four Israelis dead.
The decision means that the bodies of eight Palestinian martyrs are still languishing in Israeli morgues in terrible conditions.
They are Thaer Abu Ghazaleh, Bahaa Alayan, Abdel-Mohsen Hassouna, Muhammad Abu Khalaf, Abdel-Malik Abu Kharroub, Muhammad al-Kalouti, Abdel-Hamid Surour, and Ansar Harsha. Their families are stripped of the right to bury them in peace and dignity; their people are prevented from honoring their sacrifices; and their bodies are treated as pawns and tools of revenge.
For the families of Bahaa Alayan and Thaer Abu Ghazaleh, who were both killed in October, the plight has been ongoing for eight months, with no closure in sight.
But such is Israel’s dehumanization of Palestinians that this inhumane practice of withholding Palestinian bodies is widely supported by Israelis. The justifications may differ across the political spectrum, but the practice itself is overwhelmingly defended. Palestinians are seen as terrorists who do not even deserve the very basic right to burial.
At a time when world leaders compete over who condemns the Tel Aviv attack more viciously, Israel’s crime of withholding Palestinian bodies has barely received lip service, let alone condemnation.