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Israel cabinet allows retention of dead Palestinians in violation of international law

Palestinians mourn after the death of Muhammed Enver el-Akra (38), who was killed by Israeli forces in Gaza on 9 February 2017 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]
Palestinians mourn the death of loved ones who were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza on 9 February 2017 [Ali Jadallah/Anadolu Agency]

The bodies of dead Palestinians alleged to be "terrorists" will not be returned to their families by Israel following a security cabinet decision on Wednesday. The policy, slammed by rights groups as "barbaric", is part of a new strategy by Defence Minister Benny Gantz, intended to use the corpses as a bargaining chip in prisoner exchange negotiations.

"Refusal to return the bodies of terrorists [sic] is part of our commitment of maintaining the security of Israeli citizens, and of course to bring [dead or missing soldiers] home," explained Gantz. "I hope our enemy understands and internalises the message well."

According to the Jerusalem Post, there are four Palestinian corpses currently being withheld by Israel despite the Geneva Convention stating that parties to an armed conflict must bury each other's dead honourably. Ramy Abdu, the founder of the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor, said that this is an act that is considered a war crime, reported Al-Jazeera.

Adalah, the Palestinian human rights organisation based in Haifa, denounced the cabinet decision. "The Israeli security cabinet's decision to withhold the bodies of Palestinians is extremely problematic and is clearly driven by motivations for vengeance," it said. "The policy of using human bodies as bargaining chips violates the most basic universal values and international law which prohibit cruel and inhuman treatment. This position has indeed already been supported by three Israeli Supreme Court justices. This is an extreme and barbaric policy and there is no country in the world that would adopt it."

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Israel's Supreme Court will now demand an examination of the state's continued withholding of bodies and seek the legal justification for the continued suffering of Palestinian families affected by this decision, explained Adalah, which will continue to work against any policy of collective punishment.

The Israeli authorities have routinely withheld the bodies of Palestinian assailants or alleged assailants, a practice widely condemned by local and international human rights groups. Indeed, it holds the remains of hundreds of Palestinians from as far back as 1967. They are kept in morgues or otherwise buried in unkempt graves in what is known as the cemetery of numbers. Gantz said that this is all part of a broader campaign of "deterrence".

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