Israel refuses to return body of Fatah military leader

Elis Gjevori

Middle East Eye  /  December 21, 2022

Family of cancer-stricken Nasser Abu Hamid accuse Israeli prison authorities of medical negligence.

Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz on Wednesday refused requests to return the body of a high-profile Palestinian prisoner, Nasser Abu Hamid, 49, who died on Tuesday morning.

Hamid’s family, who have been calling for the body to be returned so they can bury him, have said that he died due to Israeli medical negligence.

Under Islamic practice, a person’s burial should take place as soon as possible, usually on the same day. 

Gantz denied in a statement that Israel was involved in Hamid’s death.

The Defence minister said the decision to withhold Hamid’s body was taken in consultation with security officials for future prisoner exchanges with Palestinian groups.

Hamid, from the Am’ari refugee camp in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, had been imprisoned since 2002 over his involvement in the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, the armed wing of the Palestinian ruling Fatah party.

Hamid, who co-founded the group and was convicted of involvement in several killings during the Second Intifada, was diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer in August 2021. However, Israeli prison authorities ignored his complaints of chest pain for “many months”, according to Abdullah al-Zaghari, the head of the Palestinian Prisoners’ Society.

In 2020, Israel approved a policy of keeping all the bodies of Palestinian prisoners who may have committed attacks against Israel, to use as leverage if Israeli soldiers were captured dead or alive. 

At the time, Gantz, who approved the new policy, said: “Not returning the bodies of terrorists constitutes part of our commitment to maintain the security of Israel’s citizens and, of course, to bring the boys home. I suggest to our enemy that they understand and internalize the message.”

Cemeteries of numbers

Israel’s long-standing policy of withholding bodies of Palestinians killed while allegedly attempting to attack Israeli targets has been used intermittently for decades. 

The practice has long been a source of pain for Palestinian families, who sometimes have to wait years before receiving the body of a loved one for burial. 

The policy contravenes international law, with the Geneva Convention stating that parties of an armed conflict must bury each other’s dead honourably, “according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged”.

In 2017, following a petition by Adalah, a Palestinian-run legal centre in Israel, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a ruling that compelled police to return the bodies of dead Palestinians within 30 hours. 

Adalah, at the time, declared that the Israeli police had no absolute authority to withhold bodies.

The decision was overturned the following year, when the Israeli parliament amended the Counterterrorism Law, granting Israeli police the power to retain the bodies of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces.

The law also imposes conditions on families of the deceased regarding the burial, the size of the funeral, location, timing, and attendees.

In 2016 the United Nations Committee Against Torture condemned Israel’s policy. It urged Israel “to return the bodies of the Palestinians that have not yet been returned to their relatives as soon as possible so they can be buried in accordance with their traditions and religious customs, and to avoid similar situations are repeated in the future”.

Documents by Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Centre (JLAC) estimate that at least 256 Palestinian bodies, some held since 1967, are kept in Israeli burial sites and morgues known as “cemeteries of numbers” – named after the numbering system that replaces names on graves.

Elis Gjevori is a journalist based in Istanbul