Israel continues to hold bodies of slain Palestinians

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ISRAELI authorities last Friday returned the body of Bahaa Imad al-Hirbawi, a Palestinian who was killed by Israeli forces near Qalandiya checkpoint last Tuesday in the central occupied West Bank district of Ramallah.

This was while the Israeli state continued to hold the bodies of three other Palestinians who were killed following a deadly attack in occupied East Jerusalem the previous week. Al-Hirbawi was killed at the Jabaa military checkpoint near the illegal Israeli settlement of Adam, close to the infamous Qalandiya checkpoint in Ramallah, after Israeli forces opened live fire on him for allegedly attempting to carry out a stabbing attempt.

However, al-Hirbawi’s family rejected the Israeli army’s version of events as ‘false claims’. Members of the family said that Bahaa left home last Tuesday afternoon after getting off of work, and said he was going to Ramallah city to shop and visit his brother who lives there.

Relatives cited eyewitness accounts as saying that Israeli forces stopped Bahaa at the Jabaa checkpoint on his way back home from Ramallah and surrounded him. After that, ‘nobody knows what happened’, they said. The family said they first heard of Bahaa’s death through social media posts and were officially informed by the Palestinian liaison sometime later.

Israeli forces have been routinely criticised for their excessive use of force and for what rights groups have termed a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy against Palestinians who did not constitute a threat at the time of their death, or who could have been subdued in a non-lethal manner – amid a backdrop of impunity for Israelis who committed the killings.

Meanwhile, the Palestinian Committee of Civil Affairs released a statement last Friday saying that ‘continuous efforts’ were being made to pressure the Israeli authorities to return the bodies of the three slain Palestinians who allegedly carried out a deadly attack at Damascus Gate near the Old City, which left an Israeli police officer dead.

After it was revealed that the three alleged assailants – Baraa Ibrahim Saleh, 18, Adel Hassan Ahmad Ankoush, 18, and Usama Ahmad Ata, 19 – were from the occupied West Bank village of Deir Abu Mashaal, the town was subsequently placed under lockdown, and has been subjected to multiple military raids since.

Israeli authorities had taken measurements of the homes of the alleged assailants in preparations for punitive demolitions, which the families had been informed would be carried out ‘soon’. According to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, a total of 22 people, the three men’s family members, will be left homeless by the punitive demolitions in spite of not having been charged with any wrongdoing.

Adel Ankoush’s mother Zeinab was also detained by Israeli forces during a raid on her home. She is expected to be held by Israeli authorities for an additional eight days under suspicion of ‘supporting a terrorist organisation and planning to conduct an attack’, according to a statement released Friday by Israeli police spokeswoman Luba al-Samri.

She is also being interrogated for ‘inciting violence and terrorism’, al-Samri added. Israeli police had also extended the detention of a Palestinian in his fifties from the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood of al-Issawiya until June 26th, for Israeli authorities to conduct more interrogations over suspicion the man had ‘transported the three terrorists to the area on the day of the attack’, according to al-Samri.

Israeli authorities are known to withhold Palestinian bodies from their families for extended periods of time after they have carried out an attack, alleging that funerals of ‘martyrs’ – Palestinians killed by Israeli forces – encourage ‘incitement’ against the Israeli state.

However, Palestinians have long claimed that the policy is a form of ‘collective punishment’, targeting the families of actual or alleged Palestinian attackers, while also preventing families of slain Palestinians from requesting proper autopsies on their loved ones, as the bodies returned are often damaged and disfigured.

A case demanding the release of Palestinian bodies still being held by the Israeli state, including Abd al-Hamid Abu Srour, Muhammad Tarayra, Muhammad al-Faqih, Rami Awartani, and Misbah Abu Sbeih – which have been held for 14 months, 12 months, 11 months, 11 months, and eight months respectively, has been frozen in Israel’s Supreme Court for months.

Israel has also continued to hold the body of Fadi al-Qunbar, although he was not included in the case heard by the Supreme Court. A joint statement released by Addameer and Israeli minority rights group Adalah in March 2016 condemned Israel’s practice of withholding bodies as ‘a severe violation of international humanitarian law as well as international human rights law, including violations of the right to dignity, freedom of religion, and the right to practise culture.’

Meanwhile, ultra-right wing Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said during a speech at Israel’s Herzliya conference, aimed at discussing the country’s national policies: ‘We will not agree to the return of a single refugee to within the 1967 borders.’

He rejected the possibility of Palestinian refugees from historic Palestine, which Israel was built on, being able to return to their lands within the 1967 borders, a right that is upheld by United Nations Resolution 194.

‘There will never be another prime minister who makes propositions to Palestinians like Ehud Olmert did,’ he added, referring to a 2008 peace proposal introduced by the former prime minister.

The right of return for Palestinian refugees is a central demand among Palestinians and their leadership.

The demand also represents a powerful symbolic connection to their lands and homes they were displaced from, as many Palestinians still possess original keys to their homes that were consumed by the state of Israel 69 years ago.

According to Israeli media, Lieberman also claimed that an end to the decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict would ‘not solve the problems – it will make them worse’, and noted that Israel should first ‘reach a regional agreement with moderate Sunni states, and only then an agreement with the Palestinians.’

He also went on to question the legitimacy of Palestinian citizens of Israel being part of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, noting that the Joint List political bloc – representing parties led by Palestinian citizens of Israel in the Knesset – refused to acquiesce to Zionist ideologies.

‘The only place they don’t want to leave is Israel. Why? Because it’s good for them here,’ he said, referring to Palestinian citizens of Israel, making up approximately 20 per cent of the population, whose families lived on the lands of historic Palestine before the creation of the state of Israel.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), 66% of Palestinians who were living in British-Mandate Palestine in 1948 were expelled from historic Palestine and displaced from their homes and lands during the creation of Israel, referred to as the Nakba, or catastrophe, among Palestinians.

On the topic of Gaza, Lieberman reportedly said: ‘I don’t think we need to get into it. It won’t end soon,’ before alleging that the dire humanitarian situation in the besieged Palestinian territory is an ‘intra-Palestinian crisis’.

This echoed statements made by US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who placed full blame of the dire humanitarian situation in the besieged Gaza Strip on Hamas, and absolved Israel of any responsibility for the ongoing crisis.

Lieberman also accused Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, of attempting to influence Hamas to go to war with Israel by exacerbating the crisis in Gaza by cutting Palestinian Authority (PA) payments for electricity supplied to Gaza from Israel. Lieberman’s statements came amid an attempted renewal of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process by right-wing US President, Donald Trump.

Most recently, last Wednesday evening, a meeting was held between Abbas and Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner in the central occupied West Bank city of Ramallah to discuss reviving peace talks with Israel. However, Israeli leaders have been public on their rejection of the Palestinian Authority (PA) taking over East Jerusalem, which was officially annexed by Israel in 1980, and have regularly voiced their opposition to the return of Palestinian refugees or even the halting of illegal Israeli settlement expansions in the occupied Palestinian territory.

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s right-wing education minister, has also introduced a bill in the Israeli parliament that would prevent any future divisions of Jerusalem, by mending Israel’s Basic Law on Jerusalem to necessitate the approval of 80 of the 120 Knesset members to make any changes to the law, instead of the regular majority vote.

‘The purpose of this law is to unify Jerusalem forever,’ Bennett reportedly said, adding that his legislation would make it ‘impossible’ to divide Jerusalem. While the PA and the international community do not recognise the legality of the occupation of East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank since 1967, many Palestinians consider that all historic Palestine has been occupied since the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.

A growing number of activists have criticised a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as unsustainable and unlikely to bring durable peace given the existing political context, proposing instead a bi-national state with equal rights for Israelis and Palestinians.