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Israel's Return Of Palestinian Bodies Is Fraught With Emotion And Politics

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Israel's Return Of Palestinian Bodies Is Fraught With Emotion And Politics

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Israel's Return Of Palestinian Bodies Is Fraught With Emotion And Politics

Israel's Return Of Palestinian Bodies Is Fraught With Emotion And Politics

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/462037563/462059848" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Palestinians chanting "God is great" deliver a corpse draped with a red and green blanket to the morgue at Ramallah's Palestine Medical Complex. The body was one of dozens returned recently by Israel. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Emily Harris/NPR

Palestinians chanting "God is great" deliver a corpse draped with a red and green blanket to the morgue at Ramallah's Palestine Medical Complex. The body was one of dozens returned recently by Israel.

Emily Harris/NPR

Last week, Israel transferred to Palestinian control the corpses of dozens of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces during recent stabbings, shootings or car attacks against Israelis.

Most had been held for weeks. The handling of remains in this long-running conflict is an emotional, political and strategic issue for both sides.

The current surge of violence reveals the gruesome complexity.

When two bodies arrived last week at the Palestine Medical Complex in Ramallah, in the West Bank, scores of young men gathered outside. A dozen armed Palestinian police were there, too. They allowed a few people at a time to enter the small morgue for a first glimpse at the bodies of friends or family.

As a third corpse arrived, wrapped in black plastic and draped with a red and green blanket, the officers cordoned off a path to allow Palestinian men, chanting "God is great," to deliver it directly inside.

This body, like the dozens now returned, had been transferred from an Israeli morgue to an Israeli ambulance, across a military checkpoint to a Palestinian ambulance in the West Bank. The remains are usually then taken to hospitals, often for autopsies before burial.

They come cold. Inside the morgue, the cheeks of one young man were dotted with white frost. His black hair was damp and sticking to his forehead.

A Palestinian visitor pulled down the black plastic body bag and a blue sheet wrapping another body to reveal three close bullet wounds in that young man's chest. His mouth was open and he had blood on his chin.

Nighma Saleh holds a portrait of her son, Mohammad Saleh, age 24 when he was killed on Nov. 17, reportedly in an armed clash with the Israeli military. She attended a meeting last week of families and activists to tell the Palestinian Authority and Israel that Palestinians refuse to comply with certain conditions for returning bodies, including a requirement to have small, private funerals. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Emily Harris/NPR

Nighma Saleh holds a portrait of her son, Mohammad Saleh, age 24 when he was killed on Nov. 17, reportedly in an armed clash with the Israeli military. She attended a meeting last week of families and activists to tell the Palestinian Authority and Israel that Palestinians refuse to comply with certain conditions for returning bodies, including a requirement to have small, private funerals.

Emily Harris/NPR

Getting bodies back is important to Palestinians, who honor their dead as martyrs in a long-running struggle. But early in the recent surge of violence, Israel said no bodies would be handed back, in part to deter attackers looking for glory. At that time, Cabinet member Yuval Steinitz said experience showed that Palestinian burials trigger more violence.

"What we discover is that any such burial became a ceremony praising the terrorist act and calling other people to imitate," he says. "And therefore, we decided not to return the bodies of dead terrorists until things calm down."

Attacks continue almost daily, but Israel has now returned almost all the remains of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks or alleged attacks against Israelis over the past three months.

Israel's security establishment has long been divided on a body strategy, says Ely Karmon, a senior research fellow at Israel's International Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya.

"Some said it's true that burials provoke incitement," he says. "But [to] not return the bodies is also a trigger. Many families are very angry and, you know, large families sometimes."

Israel often hands back bodies on the condition that funerals be quick, small and private. Many families hold large public processions anyway. Last week in Hebron, thousands attended a joint funeral for 14 Palestinians whose remains had just been returned.

The body of 21-year-old Anas Hammad was also returned last week. Israeli troops shot and killed him after he rammed his car into soldiers patrolling his West Bank town of Silwad, near Ramallah. Several Israeli soldiers were wounded.

Anas Hammad, seen in a photo displayed on a shirt worn by his mother, Halla Hammad (at left), was shot and killed after injuring Israeli soldiers patrolling his town on Dec. 4. His body was returned Jan. 1. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Emily Harris/NPR

His mother, Halla Hammad, 38, wears a black sweatshirt with Anas' photograph on it. She says she had been praying to get his body back and felt it was important to hold a public funeral.

"All martyrs are our children, children of Palestine," she says. "Anas is not only my son, he is the son of the entire village."

Beyond the current wave of violence, human rights groups say Israel still holds nearly 300 bodies gathered over decades.

The names and photographs of Palestinians whose corpses remain in Israeli hands are displayed on posters in the Ramallah office of Salwa Hammad, who heads a Palestinian campaign to return all bodies, run by the Jerusalem Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights.

Hammad says that early in 2015, after legal action, an agreement with Israel was reached to return many of those bodies. Now, she's not sure.

At the Jerusalem Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights, posters show the names and photos of Palestinians whose bodies the center says are held by Israel. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Emily Harris/NPR

At the Jerusalem Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights, posters show the names and photos of Palestinians whose bodies the center says are held by Israel.

Emily Harris/NPR

"We hope the court will say they will return all the bodies," she says. "But we don't know what will happen now, after this bad situation."

Some bodies are buried in cemeteries off-limits to the public. One, in a military zone near the Jordanian border, marks graves with no names, just numbers, a few concrete blocks or sticks in the ground. A chain-link fence surrounds the cemetery, but the gate stands open. A Hebrew sign calls it the "Cemetery for Enemy Casualties."

Israeli David Elhayani, head of the regional council in the Jordan Valley, says officials removed at least one body as recently as a year ago.

"It's a weird place," he says. "Ninety-nine percent of the general public don't know this place exists."

Israel says it has been forced to keep some enemy remains for a long time to have bargaining power to recover Israelis who are captured — dead or alive — by the other side. Some of the enemy remains are not Palestinian, but casualties from battles with Hezbollah in Lebanon or Jordanian soldiers killed decades ago.

Known as the "numbers cemetery," this burial ground on an old military base in the off-limits zone close to Israel's border with Jordan holds the remains of some Palestinians. Emily Harris/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Emily Harris/NPR

Known as the "numbers cemetery," this burial ground on an old military base in the off-limits zone close to Israel's border with Jordan holds the remains of some Palestinians.

Emily Harris/NPR

The practice of keeping bodies started when Israel realized its enemies wanted to trade them for Israeli captives, says Yaakov Amidror, a retired Israeli general.

"So slowly, slowly, there began to be some kind of 'bodies market' in which we didn't give back the bodies of killed terrorists, expecting that if they get one of our bodies, we will have enough to pay for that not by releasing live terrorists but by giving them back bodies," he says.

Israeli politicians can face pressure from Israeli families to not release Palestinian remains if their own loved ones are missing. Zehava Shaul's son, Oron, a soldier, is believed to have been killed in Gaza during the 2014 war between Israel and the militant Islamist group Hamas. But no corpse was recovered. She watches Israel return Palestinian bodies now with sorrow.

"All of their dead, the army returns," Shaul tells NPR. "And I ask, what about our children? Where are they in this deal?"

Meanwhile, in Gaza, a Palestinian mother, Ibtisam al-Aghawani, is waiting for the body of her son. She says Israel has held his remains since he participated in a suicide attack almost eight years ago.

She says not having a body to bury nearby is "like a fire inside" that never goes out.

"To keep a dead body, why?" she asks. "It is bones now."

Both mothers say all they can do is wait.

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