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Israel's withholding of corpses is a pyrrhic victory over the dead

Muslims visit graves of their relatives at Martyrs Cemetery after the Salat al Eid prayer in Ramallah, West Bank during the first day of the Eid al Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice) on 21 August, 2018 [İssam Rimawi/Anadolu Agency]

In the whole history of humanity I don't believe that we have seen an occupation that holds the living accountable for their struggle against their enforced loss of dignity, and then kills them for doing so, before punishing their corpses. And yet this is what the Israeli occupation does to the Palestinians, alive and dead.

Israel's withholding of dozens of corpses of Palestinians that its troops have killed betrays the most basic norms of human morality. It is also a violation of international laws and conventions. Israel has become an expert in such lawbreaking since the very beginning of its occupation of Palestinian land in 1948. The bodies and remains of the martyrs are held hostage by Israel, an act of extortion that prevents their families from laying their loved ones to rest.

The violation of the sanctity of the dead comes in many forms, such as mutilation and even, it is alleged, the theft of organs, as well as the long-term detention of their bodies, either in mortuaries or numbered rather than named and identifiable graves. All have been practised by Israel for decades as a way to deprive the Palestinians of recognition in death, just as they are deprived in life.

"The Israeli occupation authorities have been withholding 253 martyrs in the so-called 'cemeteries of numbers' since the beginning of the occupation of the Palestinian territories," confirms the National Campaign for the Recovery of Martyrs' Bodies. "Twenty-eight martyrs have been held in mortuaries since 2015, many of whom were killed in field executions. So far, only four martyrs have been buried. Furthermore, the occupation is not responding to the case of the bodies of 68 missing martyrs. Legal efforts to release their bodies are ongoing."

READ: Palestine families protest over Israel's retention of bodies

Reasonable folk finds it difficult to understand the fact that the Israeli judiciary, legislature, and executive all justify such treatment of Palestinian corpses. This is, remember, a state which claims to be "the only democracy in the region" and is often praised as such by its friends in the US and Europe.

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court in Israel gave parliament the green light to allow the government to continue to withhold Palestinian bodies having previously ruled against it only because there was no specific law allowing it. A new law was passed in March to "correct" this apparent shortcoming.

The occupation state takes advantage of the fact that it has been given virtually complete immunity by the international community, putting itself above the law. Nevertheless, it continues to be in daily breach of international law, including Article 17 of the First Geneva Convention of 1949, for example. This states that conflicting parties must "ensure that the dead are honourably interred, if possible, according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged, that their graves are respected, grouped if possible according to the nationality of the deceased, properly maintained and marked so that they may always be found."

READ: Israel allows police to withhold bodies of Palestinians

In all that it does, Israel tries to convince itself and the international community that it is making great progress, but it cannot disguise the fact that the "spirit of resistance" amongst the Palestinian people will always escape the iron grip of its brutal occupation. Israel may well believe that it is inflicting great harm on the Palestinians by withholding their martyrs' corpses, but the price that Israel pays in the damage to its collective sense of decency and humanity makes it a pyrrhic victory indeed.


The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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