Since 1967, Israel has kept the remains of an undisclosed number of Palestinian and Arab fighters following their deaths during military operations. Their whereabouts remained secret for decades but in recent years four cemeteries have been uncovered within restricted Israeli military areas in which some of these missing victims of war are being held. It is unknown how many more cemeteries are in existence or exactly how many people are buried in these cemeteries.
Palestinians refer to these cemeteries as the 'Cemeteries of Numbers' due to people being buried in bare and often shallow graves with only identification numbers instead of names and gravestones. Since the discovery of these cemeteries, a campaign spearheaded by the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC) has worked tirelessly to retrieve the bodies. The campaign is ongoing, but to date 442 cases of withheld bodies and missing persons have been documented. This Israeli policy is in contravention of international law and Article 17 of the Geneva Conventions.
In 2010, following a legal battle in the Israeli Supreme Court, the body of Mashour Arouri was the first to be returned from the Cemeteries of Numbers. He was returned to his family and buried 34 years after his death.
Through an ongoing legal struggle and as negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority continue, Israel is returning the remains of a small number of Palestinians who are buried in these cemeteries. On Sunday night the occupation authorities handed over the remains of two Palestinians from the Bethlehem area at Tarkumia checkpoint. Ayat al-Akhras and Daoud Abu Swayy both died in the early years of the Second Intifada whilst carrying out military operations in West Jerusalem. Thousands of Palestinians joined the funeral procession on Monday before the two martyrs were finally laid to rest in the Martyrs Cemetery in Artas village.
MEMO Photographer: Rich Wiles