Skeletons in the closet: Israel's macabre policy of keeping dead Palestinians bodies from their families
The Nativity street in Bethlehem is relatively empty for a Sunday afternoon, with the exception of a small group of African pilgrims who stand by a side-walk souvenir seller.
“Amjad loved this place, he spent hours here with his friends,” says Osama Abu Sultan with a low tone, almost whispering to himself.
Osama Abu Sultan drives his car in front of a by-road through which the sight of the Manger Square is gradually revealed from behind souvenir shops. “The day he was killed, I had driven him here myself, as I always did,” recalls Osama Abu Sultan, remembering the last hours of his 14-year-old son’s life.
"As long as you haven't seen the body, you can not kill the hope, or the anguish"
“In the afternoon, I was driving back from Qalqilya, where I had taken Amjad’s bike for repair." Osama Abu Sultan brings back the details of that Thursday afternoon, October 14, 2021, when his son’s name had already become flash news on social media.
“My wife had tried to reach me on the phone earlier but I hadn’t paid attention, then I finally picked up while driving, only to hear her telling me that Amjad had been wounded by Israeli fire. I looked at his repaired bike in the car’s front mirror, and my heart dropped.”
Amjad’s parents had not known yet that Amjad was instantly killed, as he received the fatal shot from an Israeli army sniper. He had been with a friend at an empty location near the Israeli separation wall in Beit Jala, at the northernmost edge of Bethlehem.
The Israeli army said later that it had shot at Palestinians trying to throw Molotov cocktails at the wall.
“When I arrived home, I saw dozens of people at our house and had a terrible feeling that the worst had happened,” continues Abu Sultan. “My sister-in-law told me in private that Amjad was killed and that the occupation soldiers captured his body, but no one had let my wife know yet.
“Deep inside I kept hope that he was only wounded, even after speaking to officials from the Palestinian civil liaison, who confirmed the news from the Israeli side, I still kept hope.”
Abu Sultan pauses to take a deep breath and then adds: “As long as you haven’t seen the body, you can not kill the hope or the anguish.”
The withholding of dead Palestinian bodies has been practised by Israel for decades. However, human rights groups affirm that there has been a significant rise in the withholding of Palestinian bodies by Israeli forces since 2015.
Currently, there are 250 Palestinian bodies buried since 1967 in Israeli special graveyards. known by Palestinians as “the numbers graves yards”, due to the fact that graves have numbers instead of names. In addition, Israel withholds 105 Palestinian bodies in morgue fridges all killed after 2015.
My family had become part of a phenomenon
Abu Sultan’s family lives on the third floor of a residential building, in the Hindaza neighbourhood, southeast of Bethlehem. In the second floor’s unfinished flat, the family keeps Amjad’s memory alive with a large poster of him, his bike and the few old couches where he and his friends used to gather.
“Amjad was born in 2007 in Gaza before we moved to Bethlehem,” recalls his father as he tours his sight around the flat. “When he was six, he led a small group of children through the neighbourhood, imitating a demonstration," he goes on with a slight smile.
"When I asked when they were going to hand him over, the [Palestinian] officer said that it was a matter for the Israeli army and that the army alone could make such a decision"
On the evening of Amjad’s killing, the flat was full of people who came to comfort the family. “No one expected what we were about to go through for the whole coming month,” says Abu Sultan. “I went to bed after midnight thinking that the Israeli army will return Amjad’s body the next morning if he was dead.”
The handing over of bodies is always done through the Palestinian civil liaison office, the Palestinian body in charge of coordinating civil affairs with the Israeli occupation.
“I expected the Palestinian liaison office to call me and tell me at what time were the Israelis going to hand over Amjad, but instead I received a call from an Israeli intelligence officer, who called to confirm Amjad’s death,” says Abu Sultan. “When I asked when they were going to hand him over, the officer said that it was a matter for the Israeli army and that the army alone could make such a decision.”
The weekend went by, while Amjad’s family waited for a phone call, believing that it was only delayed because of the days off. Then, as days went by, the family began to realise there was more to the matter.
“I received a call from the Jerusalem Legal Aid Center (JLAC) who told me that I should seek legal help as my son’s body was being withheld,” says Osama Abu Sultan. “I did not believe it at the beginning, because I thought that only the bodies of militants and fighters were withheld," he explains.
“The person from JLAC told me that the body of another teenager, Yousef Soboh, who was killed a month earlier, was still withheld, and that my son was the 90th case since 2015,” says Abu Sultan. “I began to search the internet, and I realised that it was a phenomenon that I and my family were now part of. I was shocked."
Bodies as a 'bargaining chip'
“Some families learn about this Israeli practice for the first time when it happens to them, possibly because the practice had stopped for some years and only restarted in 2015,” explains Hussein Shujaiyah, coordinator of the campaign for claiming the withheld bodies of Palestinians at JLAC, and the person who spoke to Amjad’s father.
Between 2007 and 2015, Israel stopped the practice of withholding Palestinian killed bodies. Then came the Palestinian October 2015 uprising, during which the number of Palestinian knife attacks against Israeli forces and settlers increased, often ending with the killing of the attackers. Israeli forces then began once again to withhold the bodies of the killed.
“Families often enter in a state of shock and have their entire lives on hold, unable to work or do anything until the bodies are returned”, explains Shujaiyah. “It is a form of collective punishment that amounts to a war crime, but the Israeli legal framework for this practice is based on the British-era ‘emergency regulations’, particularly article 133,” he notes.
In 2017, the Israeli cabinet issued a resolution entitled ‘Uniform Policy on the Handling of Terrorist Bodies’. The resolution stated that the bodies of Palestinians who belonged to Hamas, or those who committed particularly dramatic attacks against Israelis should be withheld.
“The aim of this specific Israeli policy, which the Israeli Knesset passed into law in 2018, was to use the bodies as a bargaining chip against Hamas, in any future negotiation over the Israeli soldiers retained in Gaza since the 2014 war," explains Shujaiyah. “However, the practice expanded in the following years and began to include more Palestinians who don’t fall into the mentioned criteria," he adds.
"The Israeli legal framework for withholding Palestinian killed bodies is based on the British-era 'emergency regulations"
Avoiding a 'legal precedent'
The reclaiming of Palestinian bodies follows a particular procedure, in which Israeli authorities “try to bargain and delay to the last moment,” according to Hussein Shujaiyah.
“We generally contact the family and offer our legal help, or advise them to hire legal assistance of their choice,” he explains. “We then address the Israeli army and police, and in case they refuse to hand over the body, we file a demand at the Israeli supreme court,” he details.
“The supreme court, however, never rules in favour of the family’s request,” says Shujaiyah. “It is the army who calls the family and promises to hand over the body, in exchange for dropping the case in court," he points out. “In that way, they avoid a court ruling that would set a legal precedent against the Israeli policy," he explains.
In the case of Amjad Abu Sultan, that call came almost a full month after his killing, and after the Israeli press shed light on Amjad’s killing and body withholding.
“I received a call from an Israeli army officer who told me that they had decided to hand over Amjad’s body," says Osama Abu Sultan. “They wanted me to drop the case at the court, so I called the lawyer and told him what had happened. He said that this was the moment we were after, and he dropped the case the same day," he adds.
Osama Abu Sultan headed to an Israeli checkpoint west of Bethlehem late on Friday, 19 November 2021, in a Palestinian ambulance, accompanied by a representative of the civil liaison office. On the other side, was an Israeli ambulance, supposedly containing Amjad’s body.
“When I opened the death bag, I couldn’t recognise the face of the person lying in it,” describes Abu Sultan. “I thought that this was the effect of having remained in a fridge for weeks until I noticed a beard, which Amjad did not have, and I couldn’t deny it anymore; that was not the body of Amjad."
Abu Sultan took pictures of the body and sent them to a Palestinian journalist, who in turn sent them to the family of another Palestinian whose body remains withheld by Israeli forces to this day; 37-year-old Fadi Samarah.
Samarah was killed in May 2020 near an Israeli checkpoint west of Ramallah, while driving his car. The Israeli military said that he tried to run over Israeli soldiers, while his family said that he was on his way to pick up his five children after the Eid vacation.
“Since Fadi’s death in May of 2020, we could not move on with our lives, as there was still a slight hope that he could be alive," says Eyad Samarah, Fadi’s brother. “I used to have dreams where I saw Fadi telling me that he wasn’t dead, my mother’s health deteriorated immediately after, as she couldn’t stop thinking of him. It was a year and a half of constant anguish and pain,” describes Eyad Samarah.
“When I saw the picture that the journalist had sent, I immediately recognised him, and I only wanted the earth to split wide open and swallow me,” he details. “It was a mixture of pain and relief of being sure that he is dead, but unfortunately, my mother had passed away months earlier, without being relieved," he goes on.
“The Israeli ambulance officer was very nervous about the mistake," says Osama Abu Sultan. “He went over his lists and then said that the body was unidentified, which means that Fadi Samarah’s family would have never known that his body was withheld, had the mistake not taken place," explains Abu Sultan.
We became a 'big family'
Samarah’s family contacted JLAC and began their own process of claiming his body. Meanwhile, the Israeli army made sure to close Amjad Abu Sultan’s case as fast as possible.
“The next morning, the army handed over Amjad’s body, and this time it was him," says Osama Abu Sultan. “We decided to hold the final prayers in the Omari mosque, across the manger square from the Nativity church, where Amjad loved to spend his afternoons with his friends.
"At the funeral, thousands of people marched closely behind the coffin, as if all of Bethlehem had adopted him as their own child," he recalls.
“We didn’t know the Abu Sultan family before the incident," says Eyad Samarah. “After that day, we became like one family, as if Amjad and Fadi had united us.
“During this time, we came to know many families who share the same experience as us, like Fadi Samarah’s family," affirms Osama Abu Sultan. “We are like one big family now, supporting each other and making our case known," he adds.
Since 2015, the families of withheld Palestinians killed have continued to organise and advocate their case internationally.
In a July 2020 report, the UN special rapporteur on human rights, Michael Lynk denounced the Israeli policy of withholding bodies of killed Palestinians as a form of collective punishment, and a violation of international law.
Qassam Muaddi is The New Arab's West Bank reporter, covering political and social developments in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Follow him on Twitter: @QassaMMuaddi