Israel’s security cabinet ruled on Wednesday that it would not be returning the bodies of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces to their family for burial, following weeks of appeals from the family of Ahmed Erekat, who was shot dead at a military checkpoint in the occupied West Bank in June.
Twenty-seven-year-old Erekat was on his way to his sister’s wedding when Israeli soldiers shot and killed him at the “container” checkpoint outside Bethlehem, after accusing him of committing a car-ramming attack on soldiers stationed at the checkpoint.
As part of Israel’s widely-condemned policy of detaining the bodies of Palestinian “attackers” to be used as political bargaining chips, Erekat’s body has been held in a freezer since June, despite immense pressure from the family and human rights groups to have his body returned for burial.
According to Haifa-based NGO Adalah, who is representing the Erekat family in Israel’s Supreme Court, while the security cabinet’s decision on Wednesday was not issued in direct response to the Erekat case, it will inevitably have a direct effect on the family’s battle to get their son’s body returned home for burial.
In the case of Erekat, Adalah Attorney Sawsan Zaher has argued that his body is being held “without authority,” and that he has a constitutional right to “be buried with dignity,” and within a short period of time following his death.
“The Israeli security cabinet’s decision to withhold the bodies of Palestinians is extremely problematic and is driven clearly by motivations for vengeance,” the group said in a statement in response to the cabinet’s decision.
“The policy of using human bodies as bargaining chips violates the most basic universal values and international law which prohibit cruel and inhuman treatment,” Adalah said. “This position has indeed already been supported by three Israeli Supreme Court justices. This is an extreme and barbaric policy and there is no country in the world that would adopt it.”
As a result of the cabinet’s decision, Adalah said, Israel’s Supreme Court will “now demand an examination of Israel’s continued withholding of bodies and seek the legal justification for the continued suffering of Palestinian families affected by this decision.”
Erekat is one of 63 Palestinians whose bodies are currently being held by Israel, in a policy that has been described by rights groups as “collective punishment.”
Despite previous Supreme Court decisions that ruled against the practice, the court reversed its previous decisions in 2019, and authorized the government to withhold the bodies of 13 slain Palestinians at the time.
Adalah emphasized that previous rulings allowed Israeli authorities to withhold bodies of Palestinians affiliated with the Hamas movement, and in instances of alleged attacks in which there were Israeli casualties.
Wednesday’s decision, however, will apply to all Palestinians “regardless of the organizational affiliation of the deceased or the circumstances of the alleged incident and whether or not there are Israeli casualties.”
The practice of detaining Palestinian bodies has been in practice since Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem in 1967.
It is estimated that since then, Israel has buried at least 253 Palestinians in a “cemetery of numbers” with unmarked gravestones. Their bodies were never returned to their families for a proper burial ceremony.