Questions are being asked about possible organ theft with the Israeli army holding the bodies of dozens of Palestinians killed during its genocide in the Gaza Strip since 7 October. Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor has called for an independent international investigation into the issue.
Euro-Med Monitor has documented the Israeli army’s confiscation of dozens of dead bodies from Al-Shifa Medical Complex and the Indonesian Hospital in the northern Gaza Strip, and others from the vicinity of the so-called “safe corridor” — Salah al-Din Road — designated for displaced people heading to the central and southern parts of the enclave. According to the Geneva-based organisation, the Israeli army has also dug up and confiscated the bodies from a mass grave in one of Al-Shifa Hospital’s courtyards.
While dozens of corpses were handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which in turn transported them to the southern Gaza Strip to complete the burial process, the Israeli army is still holding the bodies of dozens of dead people.
Concerns about organ theft from the corpses were brought up by the organisation citing reports from medical professionals in Gaza who examined a few bodies quickly after their release. These medical professionals found evidence of organ theft, including missing cochleas and corneas as well as other vital organs like livers, kidneys and hearts.
Doctors at several Palestinian hospitals in Gaza told the Euro-Med Monitor team that organ theft cannot be proven or disproven solely by forensic medical examination, since multiple bodies underwent surgical procedures prior to death. They stated that it was impossible for them to conduct a full analytical examination of the recovered corpses given the intense air and artillery attacks and influx of wounded civilians, but they detected several signs of possible organ theft by the Israeli military.
Israel has a history of holding on to the bodies of dead Palestinians, explained Euro-Med Monitor. It continues to hold the remains of at least 145 Palestinians in its mortuaries and approximately 255 in its so-called “Numbers Cemetery” near the Jordanian border and off-limits to the public, as well as 75 missing people who have not been identified by Israel.
According to the rights organisation, Israel stores the bodies of dead Palestinians in what it refers to as “enemy combatant graves”, which are covert mass graves situated in particular locations such as closed military zones, where interments and burials are conducted in secret. The remains or bodies of the dead are marked only with metal plates.
According to an earlier report by Euro-Med Monitor, the Israeli authorities have kept the Palestinian bodies in sub-zero conditions in order to ensure that they remain undisturbed and possibly to hide evidence of organ theft.
Moreover, Israel has made it lawful to hold dead Palestinians’ bodies and steal their organs. A 2019 Israeli Supreme Court ruling permits the military to bury the bodies temporarily in the “Numbers Cemetery”. By the end of 2021, the Israeli Knesset had passed laws allowing the army and police to hold on to the bodies of dead Palestinians.
There have been reports in recent years of the unlawful use of Palestinian corpses held by Israel, including the theft of organs and their use in Israeli university medical schools. Israeli doctor Meira Weiss disclosed in her book Over Their Dead Bodies that organs taken from dead Palestinians were utilised in medical research at Israeli universities’ medical faculties and were transplanted into Jewish-Israeli patients. Even more concerning are admissions made by Yehuda Hess, the former director of Israel’s Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine, about the theft of human tissues, organs and skin from dead Palestinians over a period of time without their relatives’ knowledge or consent.
Israel had become “ground zero for both legal and illegal” human organ transactions, according to a 2009 report by the US CNN network, which also alleged that Israel participated in the theft of organs from dead Palestinians for illegal use. This was denied by an Israeli minister at the time, who described the allegation as an “anti-Semitic blood libel against the Jewish people and the Jewish state.” Nevertheless, Euro-Med Monitor confirmed that Israel is the only country that systematically holds on to the dead bodies of those it kills, under the pretext of “security deterrence” and in total violation of international charters and agreements.
Like any other country, Israel must abide by international law, which stipulates the need to respect and protect the bodies of the dead during armed conflicts. The Fourth Geneva Convention stresses that: “Each party to the conflict must take all possible measures to prevent the dead from being despoiled. Mutilation of dead bodies is prohibited.”
Euro-Med Human Rights Monitor also confirmed that refusing to hand over the bodies of the dead so their grieving families can bury them with dignity and in accordance with their religious beliefs may amount to collective punishment. This is strictly prohibited in Article 50 of the Hague Regulations and Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.