Middle East Eye / March 21, 2023
Over a hundred Palestinian bodies are still being held by Israel, denying their loved ones the closure of a farewell burial.
Zamzam stood holding a picture of her son, Mahmoud Ahmidan, 27, who was killed by Israeli soldiers in 2021. This September will mark two years since his killing, and his body is still being held at an Israeli morgue.
On Tuesday, which is Mother’s Day in the Middle East, Ahmidan’s mother organized a group of Palestinian mothers to stand in the centre of Ramallah, hold up pictures of their children, and demand the handover of their bodies. Rights groups say Israel is holding onto them as part of a policy of collective punishment.
“Mahmoud was detained in Israeli prisons for six years, and two months after his release, Israeli soldiers killed him near his hometown of Beddo, northwest of Jerusalem. On top of my pain and sorrow, Israel refuses to hand over his body to us so that we can bid him farewell and bury him,” Zamzam told Middle east Eye.
Israel is currently holding hundreds of Palestinian bodies and denying their families access to see or bury them, compounding the pain of losing them after their deaths at the hands of Israeli soldiers. According to the UN, Israel has the bodies of 325 Palestinians and refuses to hand them over.
This Mother’s Day, these mothers’ only wish is for Israel to hand over the bodies of their children. Their greatest wish is for them to be buried in graves close enough so that they can visit from time to time and grieve.
Israel has a long-standing policy of withholding the bodies of Palestinians killed while they were allegedly attempting to attack Israeli targets. Israel has used this tactic on and off for decades and resumed the practice eight years ago after putting a halt to it in 2004.
According to reports, Israel is holding onto the bodies of Palestinians in secret graves in what is known as a “cemetery of numbers”, which were allegedly established to bury them.
‘A terrible pain’
About two months ago, Israeli soldiers killed five young Palestinians after storming the Aqabat Jaber camp in the city of Jericho. Israel seized their bodies and still has them.
It was also announced that three young men were arrested after they were injured, including Alaa Awadat, whose mother went to hospital to sign papers. After arriving at his room, she was surprised to find that it wasn’t her son in the room, but his cousin, who was announced to be among the five killed.
This means that Alaa may be the fifth Palestinian killed and not his cousin, but Israel has so far refused to reveal his fate to his family, which has caused his mother, Nuha, an immense amount of pain.
“Why don’t they tell us his fate? Why don’t they want us to know what happened to him? I want to know where my son is. Is he a martyr or wounded? Is this too much for a mother who is unable to sleep from crying?” Nuha said.
Next to her, Maha stood holding two pictures of her two sons, Raafat and Ibrahim Awidat, who were among those five killed.
Adla Ghattas from Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem took the microphone and spoke about the feelings of the mothers, especially those whose bodies are being withheld because of the Israeli occupation.
Her son, Fadi, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers several months ago, and his body is still being withheld by Israel, as they refuse to hand it over to his family.
“Our demand is simple, to visit the graves of our children, to plant jasmine and roses on them. We want to close their open graves that await their return… At home, I feel afraid to open the refrigerator because I imagine my son’s body while it is in the Israeli refrigerator. I feel that he’s cold and I wish I could cover him,” Adla said among an audience that was visibly moved by her words.
The families say that this policy is part of a collective punishment practiced on Palestinians.
Lawyer Muhammad Elayan, who is following this issue in the Israeli courts, says that it is a means used by Israel to pressure families and act as a deterrent.
“Despite the futility of this, Israel refuses to hand over these bodies according to a decision it took in 2015 to detain them in the morgue, and now the list of martyrs whose bodies are withheld is increasing and includes women and children, while it refuses to disclose the burial place of hundreds of martyrs in the secret number graves,” he said.
According to Elayan, the policy of keeping the bodies is inhumane, as Israel keeps them frozen at seventy degrees below zero, which changes their features and leads to significant changes in their bodies – to the extent that some families don’t recognize their own children once they are handed over.
Amjad Abu Sultan, 15, from Bethlehem, was shot dead by Israeli soldiers near a military checkpoint, and his body was held for a year. When he was handed over, his body was frozen and his family didn’t recognize him.
As she stood with the rest of the mothers, she shed tears when she saw the pictures of the others. When we asked her why she came, she said that she knows the amount of pain that mothers feel when their sons are still in the morgue.
“The pain, of course, doesn’t end with the burial of the body, but at least I know where my son is. I visit his grave and put flowers on it. I don’t worry that he is frozen because the mother feels that her son is cold even when he is dead,” she said.
Fayha Shalash is a Palestinian journalist based in Ramallah