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Rami ‘Awartani with his children (photo courtesy of family). Israel has been holding his body for three years
From the field

“They took his soul, they can at least give me his body back”

According to B'Tselem figures, Israel is currently holding the bodies of more than 50 Palestinians who attacked or, according to the military, attempted to attack Israelis, and refusing to return them to their families.

Holding the bodies of Palestinians as bargaining chips for future negotiations is a long-standing practice in Israel that became official policy only in January 2017, when the Security Cabinet passed a resolution entitled Uniform Policy on the Handling of Terrorist Bodies. A High Court petition against the resolution was accepted by a majority opinion, but the ruling was overturned in a subsequent hearing, after an extended panel held that the Defence (Emergency) Regulations grant the state the power to hold bodies for the purpose of negotiations – based on an unreasonable interpretation of the regulations and a selective approach to international law.

Holding bodies as objects to be traded or used to squeeze the Hamas government is a contemptible practice; its affirmation by the High Court reveals more about the court than about the legality of this policy. In an op-ed about this unconscionable policy, Prof. Mordechai Kremnitzer wrote that “the next step should be to prohibit the terrorist utilization of people or bodies for coercion or extortion, and to impose various sanctions against persons involved in such activities.”

Israel’s policy on this matter is causing the families of the deceased untold suffering. Their inability to bury their loved ones makes it difficult to part with them and come to terms with their death, as well as to practice religious and traditional death rituals. Three families that are being subjected to this ordeal shared their stories with B’Tselem.

Tahani Saleh, 34, a widow and mother of four from Jabalya Refugee Camp, Gaza Strip, said in a testimony she gave B’Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 26 October 2019:

My husband, ‘Attaf Saleh, was killed on 9 September 2019 east of Jabalya Refugee Camp. The Israeli military has been holding his body ever since. ‘Attaf was my second husband. My first husband, Mesleh, was martyred in 2008. We had two children: Shuruq, now 14, and ‘Ali, now 12. Five months after Mesleh died, I married my brother-in-law, ‘Attaf. I had no choice – the family would have taken my children otherwise. Gradually, my relationship with ‘Attaf improved. He was a good husband and loved the kids very much. At first Shuruq refused to call him ‘father’, but she slowly came to accept him. ‘Ali was young and didn’t remember his father, so it was easier for him to accept ‘Attaf. ‘Attaf was a kind man and always tried to make me happy. Whenever he saw me crying or sad, he’d try to help me forget what happened.

We had two children together, Qusai and Na’imah. ‘Attaf loved all my children equally and treated them all the same. Things got better and I felt I had built a new life with him, and that he was compensation from God to fill Mesleh’s place.

My happiness was cut short when ‘Attaf was martyred, too. It happened on Sunday, 9 September 2018, when he went to the area of the Return Protests. It was the first and last time he went there. We were told he’d been hit near the fence and that the military had taken him. An hour later, we learned he had been killed. When I heard that, I fainted. When I came to, I told everyone they were lying and that he would be back soon. I screamed and cried. The next day my husband’s family contacted the Red Cross, which confirmed ‘Attaf was dead.

I’ve been in a terrible state ever since – especially after we were told that the Israeli military was holding his body and apparently has no intention of returning it. I want to hug my husband’s body and say goodbye to him with my children, to bury him in Gaza like all martyrs. It feels like my insides are burning and won’t stop until then. Ever since the Red Cross told us his body is in a refrigerator in a morgue, I keep thinking about him in that place and can’t sleep. All I want to do is get to that refrigerator, open the door, hug his body and touch his face. Every day Qusai says he wants his dad to be buried so he can hug him and visit his grave. Nai’mah doesn’t know what happened yet. She thinks her father is still alive and will come back to us. When she gets mad with me, she threatens to tell her father.

I receive aid from organizations that help widows and orphans and get by somehow. I live with my in-laws’ and that’s very difficult. I tried to leave and go back to my family, but my in-laws said I could only take little Nai’mah with me and had to leave the other kids with them. I lasted five months and then went back to their house, to my children.

I hope they give me my husband’s body back so I can say goodbye to him, bury him and calm down a little. Life without ‘Attaf is dark and sad. He lit up the house and now I don’t have his smile and kind heart, his love and his compassion. I try to keep going.

Rim Abu Jazar, 41, a married mother of seven from the Tal a-Sultan neighborhood in Rafah, Gaza Strip, said in a testimony she gave to B’Tselem field researcher Olfat al-Kurd on 8 October 2019:

My son Yusef was martyred at sixteen on 29 April 2018, in the area of the tents and protests. That day, I sent him to buy groceries at around 11:00 A.M. I waited for him to come back but by nightfall he still wasn’t home. We tried to find out where he was. A friend told us he’d seen him heading towards the border, east of Rafah. It was the first time he went there. He was just a kid and didn’t stray far from home. We also spoke with the mother of a friend of his, Anis a-Sha’er. She told me that Anis and Yusef had gone to the area of the border. I spent that night praying for Yusef’s return.

In the morning, Anis came home. He said the military had held Yusef and him all day and that he had just come from Erez Crossing. I asked him where Yusef was and he said that the soldiers had told him Yusef was injured and that they’d give him medical care and then send him back to Gaza. Later that day, the Palestinian DCO called us and said that Yusef had been martyred. When I heard that, I started screaming and crying. My husband cried, too, and tried to console me. He said: “We all come from God and return to God”. We set up a mourning tent. I felt absolutely terrible and couldn’t stop crying. It’s been a year and a half since then, and the military still hasn’t given us his body back. I don’t know what on earth Yusef could have done to deserve such a punishment. He was just a kid.

Sometimes I feel that he’s still alive, even though the Red Cross confirmed he was dead. I pray to God to send his body back to us, so I can hug and kiss him. I miss him so much, especially his laugh and his smile. He always had a smile on his face and his heart was full of compassion. He was a good boy and did whatever I asked him. I still imagine him wandering through the house. I’ve even kept his clothes. I hold them and tell myself that’s his smell. Losing him has been hard on the whole family. The house is dark without him and his brothers and sisters keep asking where he is. I feel lonely without him, especially because he was my eldest son.

Why are they holding his body in a morgue? Whenever I hear that Israel is returning the bodies of martyrs to their families, it makes me happy and gives me hope that they’ll release Yusef’s body soon, too. I often wonder if he’s cold in that refrigerator. I want to open it and stroke his face, hold him, see him for the last time, as I would wish for any mother who had to part from her martyred son. I wish I had a grave to visit and lay wreaths on.

I’m three months pregnant. I’d like to get Yusef’s body back before the birth, so I can name the new baby after him. That way, Yusef will always be with us.

Muhammad ‘Awartani, 69, a married father of six from Nablus said in a testimony he gave to B’Tselem field researcher Salma a-Deb’i on * Aug. 2019:

My son Rami was martyred on 31 July 2016. He was 31 at the time, married with three children. That day, I was in Ramallah with my son Raddad. Rami called and told me a friend of mine had been killed, and that the funeral was that day. I told him I couldn’t make it in time and he said he’d go instead.

I got home around 3:00 P.M. The moment I stepped inside, a relative called and asked me to come to Rami’s hairdressing salon. He sounded strange and didn’t say why he wanted me to come. On my way there, an officer from the Israeli DCO called and asked me all sorts of questions about Rami and his political affiliation. I was on the phone with him for about twenty minutes, even after I got to the salon. Outside, I saw a large gathering of young guys, including relatives, neighbors and friends of Rami’s. It looked very suspicious. I heard someone say that Rami had been martyred. I asked the officer, who was still on the phone with me, “What’s up with Rami? What happened to him?”. I didn’t hear exactly what he replied, but I understood Rami was dead.

I couldn’t understand how that was possible. Rami had told me he was going to the funeral. What happened? Why was he killed? I had so many questions racing through my mind. I felt like my insides were burning, like a volcano. My son! A part of my heart! That was the moment my life ended. He’s the second son I’ve lost. I lost my eldest, ‘Ali, in 2000 when he went swimming in the springs at Badan and drowned. Then my wife fell ill and passed away in 2011. In 2016, Rami was killed, and that was the blow that finished me. What keeps me alive is his children. I have to be with them until they grow up. It’s the least I can do for him.

I later learned that Rami had driven to the village of Huwara to buy spare parts for the car and was shot by soldiers at the Huwara checkpoint. The Israelis claimed that he’d tried to stab a soldier with a knife, but that doesn’t seem likely. He was happy with his life in every respect. He had his own business, he owned his house, had a car, a wife and the most beautiful children, to whom he devoted his life. Why would he do such a thing? Often, when I’m alone, I get a powerful feeling that Rami’s still alive. Otherwise, why hasn’t anyone seen his body? They refuse to hand it back, so could he be alive? I was told he was seen lying injured on the ground, but that doesn’t mean he’s dead. Maybe he’s still alive in some Israeli prison? Anything’s possible.

I wish I could go to his grave and talk to him about everything. If there was a grave, I could take his children to visit. They still don’t believe he’s dead. The youngest says that “Daddy’s gone to buy a new car. He’ll be back.” It’s natural, because they didn’t see him dead. After all, if I, a full-grown man, can’t grasp it, how can little children? When I tell them their father was martyred, they ask: “Did you see him?” When I say I didn’t, they say: “So how can you be so sure?” I tell them that an Israeli officer told me, and they answer: “He’s a liar. Daddy isn’t dead. He’s going to come back to us.”

It’s said that if you read verses from the Quran in the cemetery on Friday, after evening prayers, and then speak to the dead, they can hear you. I wish Rami had a grave so I could read out verses and help his soul reach heaven. It would give me and his soul peace.

Why are they holding his body? They’re not punishing the dead person, they’re punishing his family, the people who love him and just want to get one final look at him. It’s been three years since he was killed. I want to see him, smell him, say goodbye to him. I want to get back his clothes and his car, which they’re still holding. I want everything to do with him. I want him near me, so I can visit him whenever I want. I don’t want anything but my son Rami. It’s my right. Enough with this suffering already. They took his soul, they can at least give me his body back.