Cemeteries of numbers: Israel takes revenge on Palestinian corpses

Cemeteries of numbers: Israel takes revenge on Palestinian corpses
The bodies of Palestinians killed after attacking Israelis have no guaranteed right of return to their families.
4 min read
28 November, 2014
Palestinians killed in attacks on Israelis are often buried in numbered graves [Getty]

Israel has refused to hand over the bodies of two Palestinians that carried out a fatal attack on a Jerusalem synagogue on 18 November. Authorities may bury cousins Ghassan and Uday Abu Jamal in unmarked graves, according to the Israeli police's legal adviser.

"This would help curb attacks against Israelis in Jerusalem," the legal adviser said.

If this happens they will be buried in one of Israel's "cemeteries of numbers".

Israeli authorities keep the bodies of Palestinians and Arabs in these secret graveyards, especially if they have carried out attacks against Israel.

     Israelis use the bodies as bargaining chips in future prisoner exchange deals with armed groups.

According to Palestinian reports, Israeli authorities do this for two main reasons: First, to deter other Palestinians from carrying out further attacks, and secondly so the bodies can be used as bargaining chips in future prisoner exchange deals with armed groups.

Each grave is labelled with a number on a small metal plates instead of the deceased's name. The cemeteries are closed military zones that the public cannot usually enter.

There is no precise information about the number of these cemeteries or their locations. However, in 2003, the Israeli military confirmed the existence of two: Amiad Cemetery close to Safed and Jisr Adam Cemetery in the Jordan Valley. It did not deny others existed.

In 2013, when several bodies were returned, it became clear there were at least five cemeteries - including one previously unknown in Beersheba.

Another is the Jisr Banat Yaqub Cemetery close to the occupied Syrian Golan Heights. This held the remains of 243 fighters from Syria and Lebanon until it was closed in 2001, and the bodies moved to Amiad Cemetery.

In 1999, Jisr Banat Yaqub Cemetery became infamous after the Israeli Supreme Court called for the bodies of Issa Zawahra and Bassem Sobh to be released in response to petitions submitted by their families. However, the final report presented by the Israeli military investigative committee after visiting the cemetery showed the bodies had been handled negligently, as if there had been no intention to identify them in the future.

The Israelis are understood to have buried some bodies without documentation or metal plates to identify the deceased or the date they died, contrary to Israeli military procedures.

This has complicated efforts to identify bodies when they are exhumed many years later.

Right of return

The military's report also said the Israeli army wrote identification numbers with felt-tipped marker pens on plastic bags used to cover their bodies. The ink used in these pens is quickly rubbed away by conditions underground. In addition, the metal plates used to identify graves are not always installed properly, and are easily dislodged by the weather.

Even worse, the bodies in Jisr Banat Yaqub Cemetery were buried directly in the ground without a layer of concrete to protect them from water damage. Rainwater has seeped into graves and the bones of the deceased.

     Israel and Hizballah carried out four prisoner and body exchange deals between 1996 and 2008.

Israel and Hizballah carried out four prisoner and body exchange deals between 1996 and 2008. One of the bodies meant to be returned in 2008 was that of well-known Palestinian fighter Dalal Mughrabi who died in 1978.

However, the Israelis did not hand it over, claiming it could not be found and had been swept out of the cemetery by a mudslide.

In 2013 and 2014, the Israelis handed over some Palestinian remains in a gesture of goodwill before resuming negotiations with Palestinian authorities.

Salem Khelleh, coordinator of a national campaign to recover the bodies of missing Palestinians, said around 262 bodies were still unaccounted for, including those of Jordanians, Moroccans and Iraqis. Israel, however, says only 119 bodies are still to be returned.

Khelleh told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the Jerusalem Centre for Legal Aid petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court earlier this year, demanding the Israeli military disclose the number of secret cemeteries it has, where they are, the condition they are in, and the names and the total number of bodies held within them.

It also demanded that a DNA bank be set up, so that bodies can still be identified in the future if close relatives die.

So far, nearly 100 bodies have been recovered by the campaign which began in 2008. The remains returned include those of Palestinians who carried out suicide attacks in the Second Intifada, and of militants from the 1970s.

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.