Israel's Return Of Palestinian Bodies Is Fraught With Emotion And Politics : Parallels Israel holds the bodies of scores of Palestinians killed in years of violence. It has returned many in recent weeks, but earlier had resisted doing so, partly in fear of triggering more attacks.

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

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This next story is about a grim subject we don't hear about much in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but it holds deep emotional weight for people there. Israel often keeps the remains of Palestinians, it says, were killed during attacks on Israelis, many going back decades. Last week, it returned dozens of corpses of Palestinians killed in the last few months. NPR's Emily Harris reports from the West Bank city of Ramallah. And a warning to our listeners - some of these details will be graphic.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Yellow metal double doors open off an alley into a Ramallah hospital morgue. Last Friday, scores of young Palestinian men gathered there for a first glimpse at corpses of friends or family members killed weeks before.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken).

HARRIS: Palestinian police let a few people at a time inside, then held the crowd back as another body arrived.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MEN: (Chanting in foreign language).

HARRIS: Young Palestinian men praising God carried this corpse wrapped in black plastic on a stretcher up the alley. It had already been transferred that day from an Israeli morgue to an Israeli ambulance to a Palestinian ambulance at a military checkpoint. A Palestinian police officer let me in the morgue to see the three bodies still nearly frozen from storage in Israel.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: But please, without pictures.


HARRIS: One young man's face is wrapped in a blue sheet. He's - they're opening the body for me now. His chest has at least three bullet holes in it. His - there's a wound on his chin. Here's another young man. His - his face is frosty. His eyes are closed.

Back outside the morgue, the crowd started to disperse. Burials were later. Getting bodies back is a potent issue for 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 also said experience shows Palestinian burials trigger more violence.

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

HARRIS: But even though attacks continue almost daily, Israel has now returned almost all the remains of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks against Israelis over the past three months. Analyst Ely Karmon of Israel's International Institute for Counter-Terrorism says this is because Israel's security establishment is divided on a body strategy.

ELY KARMON: Some said it is true that burials provoke incitement but not returning the bodies is also a trigger, and many families are really angry and, you know, large families sometimes.

HARRIS: Israel often hands back bodies on the condition that funerals be small, quick and private. But many families hold large public processions anyway. Last week at a funeral in Ramallah, one extended Palestinian family marched through the streets, singing loudly.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: (Chanting in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

HARRIS: Beyond the current wave of violence, human rights groups say Israel still holds nearly 300 bodies gathered over decades. Salwa Hammad heads a Palestinian campaign to return all bodies. Posters in her office list Palestinians whose corpses remain in Israeli hands. She reads some names.

SALWA HAMMAD: Ibrahim Yassar Ibrahim Naji Khalil. He’s from Nablus. He killed in the 17 of July 2002, the second intifada also. Here the 2003, 2004...

HARRIS: The list goes on. Some are buried in cemeteries like one I visited in a military area off-limits to the public - graves marked only with a number. Israel says it's been forced to keep some enemy remains for a long time in order to recover Israelis who get captured, dead or alive, by the other side. Retired Israeli general Yaakov Amidror.

YAAKOV AMIDROR: So slowly slowly begin to be kind of bodies market in which we didn't give back the bodies of killed terrorists, expecting if they get one of our bodies we will have enough to pay for that not by releasing a live terrorist but by giving them back bodies.

HARRIS: 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 is believed to have been killed in Gaza in 2014, but no corpse was recovered. She watched Israel return Palestinian bodies now with sorrow.

ZEHAVA SHAUL: (Through interpreter) All of their dead the army returns. And I ask what about our children? Where are they in this deal?

HARRIS: And 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.

IBTISAM AL-AGHAWANI: (Through interpreter) It is like a fire inside that my son is not buried near me. To keep a dead body, why? It is bones now.

HARRIS: Both these parents - Israeli and Palestinian - say all they can do is wait. Emily Harris, NPR News.

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