By Randa Wahbe
The frozen body must be taken out of the refrigerator 48 hours prior to release in order for it to thaw. This is one of the more harrowing stipulations in an agreement between Palestinian lawyers and the Israeli government for the secret police (Shabak) to return the corpses of nine Palestinian Jerusalemites killed by Israeli police to the families of the deceased. Adalah and Addameer represent the the families and in a 5 May session of the High Court of Justice, the Israeli government announced its intention to fulfill the agreements months after they were signed.
This practice of post-mortem detention surfaced as early as October 2014 when Abd al-Rahman al-Shaloudi’s corpse was held for six days until an agreement was reached with the family on the condition that they would hold a small burial with no public funeral. Only then was the body returned to the family. As of May 2016, the Shabak is holding the bodies of eleven Jerusalemites in morgues and refrigerators – frozen bodies used as emotional leverage. Currently, all bodies withheld by Israel are of Palestinians from Jerusalem or who were killed in Jerusalem.
The practice of delaying the burial of bodies by withholding them in freezers and morgues is reminiscent of an ongoing struggle to return the remains of Palestinians held captive by Israel. There are currently 262 Palestinian bodies in the “cemeteries of numbers” operated by Israel, according to the National Campaign for the Retrieval of Palestinian and Arab War Victim’s Bodies, a project housed in the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center (JLAC). The cemeteries of numbers are so called because they are mass graves, marked only by tattered metal signposts, each with a number scrawled on them in permanent marker.
There are four known interment sites of bodies of Palestinian and Arab fighters from the 1967 war, prisoners, and suicide bombers. All are located inside the Green Line and, except for one, in closed military zones. Restrictions on Palestinian movement from the West Bank to inside the Green Line make it impossible for families to reach the graves. The last known body buried in the cemeteries of numbers is of Ibrahim Nasr who was killed in 2008 in Gaza. Israel stopped depositing bodies in the cemeteries of numbers in 2008 without publicly giving reason, but the threat that the tactic may resume remains a possibility. The families of the 262 bodies currently held in these mass graves continue to campaign for the return of the remains for burial.
Together, the cemeteries of numbers and the new practice of detaining bodies point to Israel’s expansion of warfare into the intimate terrain of death. But while the use of the cemeteries of numbers has been a practice rather than a formal policy, the withholding bodies in morgues has become legally sanctioned in the last few years. In November 2014, MK Yariv Levin (Likud) put forth an ‘8-point plan to end terror’ that did not materialize, but includes burying the bodies of alleged Palestinian attackers in undisclosed locations where they cannot be visited by families. In October 2015, the Security Cabinet approved a plan initiated by Minister Gilad Erdan to withhold the bodies of attackers as a coercive measure to punish Palestinians, both living and dead.
The practice of withholding bodies, whether in freezers or the cemeteries of numbers, serves similar ends by controlling the dead body as if it were a territory to be conquered. The legal stipulations that the families are forced to accept in order to receive and bury the body of their loved ones are a form of punishment in themselves. Israeli authorities generally demand that no public funeral take place, restrict attendance to 50-70 family members, prescribe the burial site (oftentimes not in the family plot) and demand a monetary guarantee (usually around 20,000NIS/$US5,000) to be returned only if all the conditions are met. Most often, Israel releases the bodies to the family in the middle of the night for immediate burial, yet surveils the transfer with a heavy police presence making what should be a sanctified affair into a tense, militarized one.
The bureaucratic labyrinth of the Israeli court system uses delay tactics as a way to extend detention of the bodies in opposition to religious and cultural burial customs. Families are stuck in a sinister limbo in which the anxiety of retrieving the body from the Israeli state and for burial puts Palestinian existence into a precarious position, whether in life or death. Even the conditions for burying bodies are a form of coercion in their attempt to silence, create fear and desecrate the sanctity of the dead as a means of dehumanizing and erasing Palestinian life in Jerusalem.
Through these practices, the dead body itself becomes a necessary space of domination. It is not enough for Israel to kill or eliminate the living Palestinian, it is necessary to dehumanize and degrade the body in order to control it. In April 2016, Hasan Manasrah who was fifteen when he died was returned to his family completely frozen and unrecognizable after five months held in a morgue. His family refused to accept his remains. Returning frozen bodies is in contrast to refrigerating corpses for preservation as it dehumanizes the body – the family could not touch or hold Hasan due to his frozen condition.
Similarly, the attempts to retrieve the remains of those buried in the cemeteries of numbers has proven to be a legal and diplomatic maze, in which the Israeli courts have claimed that bodies have gone missing or lost, and are therefore irretrievable. One such case is of political prisoner Anis Dawleh, who died from hunger strike complications in 1980 while serving four life sentences in Nafha prison. Israeli authorities maintained that they would detain his body until the completion of his sentence, and now his remains have gone missing. Other bodies were returned as bags of bone fragments. In one case, parts of seventeen different bodies were returned in 2012 and are buried in the Ramallah cemetery as “unknown.”
The Palestinian dead can be subject not only to detention, but to expulsion as well. Al-Araqib, one of the unrecognized Palestinian Bedouin villages in the Naqab desert, has been razed 97 times by Israeli authorities. The cemetery of the village is the only structure not demolished by Israel. In May 2014, Israel issued eviction notices directly to the buried bodies and ancestors of the village residents in what can only be described as a sickening attack.
Altogether, practices of post-mortem detention provide a glimpse into a decades-long daily reality of necropolitical elimination targeting Palestinians.