In Israel-Hamas war, the dead become bargaining chips Israel and Hamas are both holding the bodies of those killed on the other side, refusing to release them. They've done so for years and are again using the enemy dead as leverage in the current war.

How the dead serve as bargaining chips in the Israel-Hamas conflict

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When Hamas rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, the group took the bodies of some of the people they killed back to Gaza. They are still holding them. The Israeli military killed many Hamas fighters that day also, and still holds those bodies. NPR's Greg Myre tells us that for years now, Israel and Hamas have been retaining the bodies of the dead to use as bargaining chips.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Here in central Tel Aviv, I'm at an encampment known as Hostage Square. It's the gathering point for all those seeking the return of Israelis held by Hamas in Gaza.

UDI GOREN: My name is Udi Goren. I'm the cousin of Tal Chaimi, who was murdered on October 7 and his body was taken to Gaza.

MYRE: Israel says Hamas is still holding more than 130 hostages in Gaza, and at least 31 are dead. Israel tries to determine their fate in multiple ways - by debriefing hostages who've been released, and by analyzing injuries suffered by those who were taken captive. It's a painfully slow process. Goren notes that his 41-year-old cousin left behind a pregnant wife and three young children.

GOREN: It took two months until the army gave us confirmation that they could identify for sure some of his remains. So now Tal is still a hostage, only that he's coming back in a coffin.

MYRE: In turn, Israel holds the bodies of around 1,000 Hamas militants. They were killed after they stormed into southern Israel and slaughtered civilians on October 7. The Israeli military declined to provide details, such as where those Palestinian remains are being kept, or when they might be sent back to Gaza. One thing is clear - the Israeli and Palestinian dead are not likely to return home any time soon.

GERSHON BASKIN: The basic assumption in Israel is that Hamas will hold on to hostages, living or dead, as an insurance policy.

MYRE: That's Gershon Baskin, who's Israeli. He's worked as a hostage negotiator. He served as a go-between for the Israeli government and Hamas, which don't talk to each other. Israel also has a long tradition of holding on to Palestinian bodies, says Issam Aruri. He's a Palestinian who runs the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center.

ISSAM ARURI: Sometimes we feel it is arbitrary. If they feel that this guy is of a kind of value for Hamas, that they may pay a price for him or her, they will keep the body for sure.

MYRE: His group compiled an 83-page booklet on this practice of withholding dead bodies as bargaining chips. They even have a name for it - necropolitics. Meanwhile, Israel is trying to get some of its dead back unilaterally. According to the Israeli media, the military has collected 350 bodies in Gaza, many dug up in Palestinian cemeteries, and brought them to Israel. They're then examined at forensic labs to determine if any are the dead Israeli hostages. So far, none has been found. Israel subsequently returned some of those bodies to Gaza, wrapped in blue shrouds, for the Palestinians to rebury. NPR's producer in Gaza, Anas Baba, witnessed a truck delivering the bodies for reburial.

ANAS BABA, BYLINE: I was wearing a face mask, but the smell was beyond any description - 80 bodies, some of which had decomposed.

MYRE: He spoke with Palestinians looking for loved ones.

BABA: I saw Issa, a grieving father. He was wishing for only one thing - that the father could be relieved from all of the torment of losing his son.

MYRE: In Israel, the government says the dead hostages held by Hamas include two Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza way back in 2014. Gershon Baskin, the hostage negotiator, tried many times to get those bodies back.

BASKIN: Israel has held up to hundreds of Palestinian bodies over the years and tried to negotiate them. Initially, the Israeli plan was bodies for bodies. And Hamas never took that bait. They were never interested in it.

MYRE: Baskin asked Hamas why they rejected a lopsided exchange in their favor.

BASKIN: And they said to me, according to our faith, their souls are already in paradise. They're already in heaven. It doesn't matter where there remains are. They're buried.

MYRE: Standoffs like these have been part of the conflict for decades. Israel has several cemeteries dedicated to Palestinians who died during attacks against Israel. The simple grave sites do not have names on them, just numbers. Palestinians call them the cemeteries of numbers. Issam Aruri, the Palestinian human rights lawyer, says his group has documented 256 bodies in these cemeteries. He first began this work in 2008.

ARURI: The first case actually was a cousin of mine. The argument that we used in the court at the time - you know, his mother was 80. His father was 85. And their last wish is to bury their son before they die. And we succeeded to release the body.

MYRE: But in many cases, Palestinians haven't been able to get the bodies back. Saleh Barghouti was wanted by Israel when he was shot dead by the military in 2018, in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Nearly six years later, his mother, Suheir Barghouti, still doesn't know where his body is.

SUHEIR BARGHOUTI: (Through interpreter) I know that it can be in the cemetery of the numbers, or it could be still in the morgue. I, as a mother, would like to know where because I'm boiling inside, not knowing where the dead body of my beloved son is.

MYRE: We met in her living room. It's a shrine filled with posters of her sons and her late husband, all involved to varying degrees in the conflict and linked to Hamas. The 64-year-old widow says she was arrested in October, then released five weeks later as part of an exchange for some of the Israeli hostages. Both Israelis and Palestinians see the withholding of their dead as insults to Jewish and Islamic tradition. Both religions seek swift burials, often on the day of death. Again, Gershon Baskin.

BASKIN: Muslims want to bury in the same day before sundown. Jews will bury before midnight. Islam and Judaism are so similar in so many aspects, and this is one of them.

MYRE: Back at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, Udi Goren accepts the priority of getting the living hostages released first. But he says his cousin, Tal Chaimi, still deserves a proper funeral.

GOREN: We want to get my cousin's body back to be buried at home in his kibbutz, where he was born and raised, and where he chose to raise a family, and where he died defending the kibbutz.

MYRE: The family has no idea when that day might come.

Greg Myre, NPR News.

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