Al Mezan: Remains of the Deceased Are Not Bargaining Chips; International Community Must Intervene to Ensure Respect for International Law in Transfer of Palestinian Bodies Held in Israel to their Families

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Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) continue to hold a large number of bodies of Palestinians killed in actions connected to the conflict with Israel. The Israeli Minister of Defense (MoD) has suspended a plan to hand over 86 bodies, including those of members of the Islamic Jihad and Hamas movements and all of those who were from the Gaza Strip, to the Palestinian Authority (PA). The MoD has linked the handover of the bodies to the negotiations to exchange the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. The Al Mezan Center for Human Rights strongly condemns the use of Palestinian bodies held in Israel as bargaining chips, in flagrant violation of international humanitarian and human rights law. Al Mezan calls for the release of the all remains of the deceased to enable their families to bury them with the dignity due to every person.

According to sources with the National Campaign to Return the Deceased, the Israeli authorities hold hundreds of Palestinian bodies in four cemeteries. The cemeteries are located in areas that are classified as military zones. About 500 bodies are held in a cemetery near Banat Ya’qoub Bridge on the Lebanon-Syria border. About 100 bodies are buried in a cemetery in the Jordan Valley between Jericho and Damia Bridge. A third cemetery, also located in the Jordan Valley is called Refedem; the number of the bodies buried there has not been ascertained. The fourth cemetery is called Shaheta and is located north of Galilee; 50 bodies are buried there. The National Campaign has published a book that includes names and photos of 302 Palestinian deceased buried in what is called the “Cemeteries of Numbers” in which it provides information about those it was able to verify.

Al Mezan has sought several times to obtain the release of remains of deceased Palestinians from the Gaza Strip. Al Mezan submitted two appeals including the names of 11 of them to the Israeli High Court on 5 March 2004 and 26 March 2004. Al Mezan managed to obtain the release of two of the bodies; Ayman Sihweel and Ashraf Zaqout, out of the eleven on 7 November 2004.

Israel is obliged under international law and human rights standards to hand over the bodies and to respect the dignity of the deceased and the rituals related to their burial. Article 130 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and article 34 of the Additional Protocol to the Fourth Geneva Convention, which are considered part of customary international law and obligatory on all states, clearly stipulate that the bodies of detainees who die in detention and those who die in conflict must be disposed of in a respectful manner and their graves respected and properly maintained. The two articles also stipulate that states shall provide sufficient information about the deceased, protect and maintain cemeteries, facilitate access for families of the deceased and establish practical procedures to this end, and facilitate the return of the deceased and their belongings to their homeland.

The Al Mezan Center for Human Rights reiterates its condemnation of Israel’s retention of Palestinian dead for use as bargaining ships. Al Mezan also condemns Israel’s continuous and systematic violations of international humanitarian law (IHL). Al Mezan calls on the international community to respect its legal and moral duties and to oblige Israel to respect IHL in its dealings with Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories.