For the last 36 years, Raoufa Khattab has refused to believe that her son Abd al-Rahman is dead until she sees his remains with her own eyes.
“They haven’t returned his body to us, so perhaps he’s alive, perhaps he’s in jail,” she keeps telling Ahmad, another son.
Ahmad was only 13 when his brother Abd al-Rahman was killed in April 1979 during an armed confrontation with Israeli forces near Bisan, a town located in the north of present-day Israel.
Abd al-Rahman led a small group of resistance fighters who tried to carry out an attack against an Israeli military post in the area.
After his killing, his body was transferred to one of Israel’s “cemeteries of numbers,” where Palestinian combatants are buried in secret and are identified only by numbers etched on metal plates. Israel has designated these cemeteries as closed military zones.
With every prisoner exchange between Israel and Palestinian resistance groups, Abd al-Rahman’s mother would wait for him to be released as if she was waiting for a living man to get out of jail.
“Through all those years, she has never forgotten him,” Ahmad told The Electronic Intifada. “And now that she has gotten older and her health has significantly deteriorated, the very mention of him aggravates her suffering.”
When television stations came to interview Raoufa in the occupied West Bank village of Bilin in 2014, she suffered a mental breakdown and had to remain in bed for two weeks.
“Honor his memory”
If Israel’s aim of burying Palestinian fighters in cemeteries of numbers was to drive their legacy into oblivion, it has largely failed.
Wassim al-Abed only knew his uncle Abd al-Fattah Rimawi from photographs. He was not yet born when his uncle was believed to have been killed in 1969. Rimawi, better known by his nom du guerre Abu Marmar, was a commander of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Assifa Brigades.
A refugee living in Jordan, he was among the first Palestinian paratroopers and secretly returned to Palestine several times to carry out resistance operations. He is believed to be buried in the cemetery of numbers but his family has not been able to confirm that — or whether he is alive or dead.
Abu Marmar’s mother and most of his siblings have died; al-Abed, 37, has taken on the responsibility of finding and burying his uncle’s body.
“Returning his body and burying it in a known place in his hometown of Beit Rima is the least we could do to honor his memory,” al-Abed told The Electronic Intifada, referring to a village north of the West Bank city of Ramallah.
“He has sacrificed greatly for the Palestinian revolution and he deserves to be buried in dignity. Even if there is very little left of his remains, returning his body carries a massive symbolic weight,” al-Abed added.
While martyrs like Abu Marmar have never been forgotten by their families, it is only in recent years that the issue of missing bodies and bodies buried in the cemeteries of numbers been revived.
In August 2008, the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center launched a national campaign to return the bodies in cooperation with martyrs’ families. The campaign sought to reclaim the bodies of martyrs both through legal channels and public and international pressure.
No less important, however, was that the campaign shed light on some of the most notorious crimes of the Israeli occupation.
“Since its establishment, the campaign has published two books that include the names, stories and details of the martyrs whose bodies are still detained by Israel in addition to information about the cemeteries of numbers,” Salwa Hammad, a spokesperson for the center, told The Electronic Intifada.
She explained that the campaign holds a national day of action to demand the return of martyrs’ bodies. It also organizes workshops for families and encourages them to tell their stories.
According to the center’s data, the number of martyrs who are buried in the cemeteries of numbers had reached 268 by September this year, in addition to 19 who were killed in the 2014 attack on Gaza.
“The issue of the detained bodies from Gaza is particularly painful because not only did the Israeli army commit an atrocious massacre there, killing more than 2,000 people, but it also kidnapped bodies and [has] never returned them to be buried in Gaza,” Hammad said.
Israel has recently stated that the bodies of Palestinians accused of attacks against Israelis will not be returned to their families.
Israel is still refusing to hand over the bodies of at least 20 Palestinians killed between 8 October and 29 October. They include 10 from the Jerusalem area and 10 from Hebron.
Hebron has — so far — witnessed the largest protest to demand the return of martyrs’ bodies.
Thousands took to the streets there last week to demand that Israel hand over the bodies of slain Palestinians.
“Israel’s detention of the bodies is not just a form of collective punishment for the families, it’s also an attempt to conceal evidence of the summary execution that it carries out against those youth, preventing Palestinians from conducting autopsies,” Amin al-Bayed, the Hebron coordinator for the campaign to return martyrs’ bodies, told The Electronic Intifada.
Following the protest in Hebron, Israel agreed to release some of the bodies.
Two bodies of people from the Hebron area were returned to their families on Sunday morning.
Israel refused to hand over five other bodies after families rejected a condition that they be buried at midnight, according to sources in Hebron.
“Bring Bayan home”
Five other bodies were received in Hebron on Friday evening.
Ayman al-Esseili spoke to The Electronic Intifada a day before receiving his daughter’s body.
“Words fail to express my pain. My beloved daughter, the closest person in the world to me, was taken from me without being able to see her corpse, touch her clothes or kiss her,” Ayman said.
“Ever since her killing, her mother has been demanding of me to bring Bayan back home, somehow thinking that Bayan might still be alive but the army is detaining her,” he said.
“Her three-year-old brother, whom Bayan used to look after and play with, asks me all the time about her,” Ayman added. “When I tell him that Bayan has gone to heaven, he tells me that he, too, wants to go to heaven to see her again. He is convinced that Bayan is at her grandparents’ place and might be upset with him and so has not returned yet.”
Bayan was a bright pupil who had hoped to study political science and economics at university.
“She was the one who made me my morning coffee every day,” Ayman said. “She did have a great impact on Palestinian society — but it was not what we thought it would be. But I’m definitely proud of her.”
“There is nothing harder than seeing pictures of your daughter’s blood-soaked and bullet-ridden corpse on the mobile phones of soldiers,” he said.
Ayman was detained after his daughter’s slaying; he said he was beaten and interrogated. When he demanded to see Bayan’s corpse, soldiers instead showed him a picture of her body after she had been killed.
Forced to wait
Perhaps no one understands Bayan’s father better than Muhammad al-Akhras. He was forced to wait for nearly 12 years before the remains of his daughter were returned to him.
On the first day of every Eid, the annual Muslim festivals, the cemetery of martyrs in Dheisheh refugee camp near the West Bank city of Bethlehem is crowded with families visiting the graves of their loved ones.
Al-Akhras, however, could only dream of visiting his daughter’s grave so that he could lay a wreath and shed the tears that he had tried so resolutely to hold back.
His daughter Ayat, 17, blew herself up in a market in Jerusalem in March 2002, killing a girl her same age and a security guard.
During that time, at the height of the second intifada, Dheisheh had been subjected to daily raids and attacks by Israeli forces.
“When I finally received her remains in February 2014, it was like saying that suspended goodbye that we did not have the chance to utter,” Muhammad told The Electronic Intifada.
Thousands attended Ayat’s funeral procession in February 2014, Muhammad said. He added that since she was supposed to get married just after graduating high school, her funeral was like a wedding party.
Even though al-Akhras managed to reclaim his daughter’s remains, he is still strongly committed to the cause of returning all martyrs’ bodies. He has memorized the names of those in the cemeteries of numbers.
He reads all the available information and regularly visits the workshops that the campaign organizes. The 67-year-old can no longer walk and uses a wheelchair, but his physical disability hasn’t diminished his dedication to the cause.
“I wish I could go to Hebron and march with the families of martyrs to demand the bodies of their martyrs,” he said. “It was my indomitable faith that allowed me to handle Ayat’s loss and I hope that all of them keep this faith and get to bury their children.”
Detaining the bodies of Palestinian martyrs and later burying them in secret cemeteries is designed to achieve multiple purposes. The policy imposes an additional punishment on the dead and collective punishment on their families.
Martyrs’ bodies have also been used as potential bargaining chips in prisoner exchange deals.
The policy also has more existential implications.
But by withholding the bodies, Israel is targeting the collective Palestinian memory and dehumanizing those living under its colonial rule who dare to challenge its occupation.
In her book, Security Theology, Surveillance and the Politics of Fear, the Palestinian scholar Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian argues that “the occupying colonial power does not only control and expropriate the living, but also the dead and sites of Palestinian burial.”
“Israel is still reading and writing the power of the dead as a security threat,” she adds.
Every martyr’s funeral is likely to turn into a mass protest — and Israel is fully aware of that.
In Jerusalem, Israel decides when Palestinians can obtain the bodies of their dead, where they can bury them and the number of people allowed at the funerals. Israel has even ordered families to hand over money to collect the bodies of their loved ones.
His family was forced to bury him on 12 October in his Jerusalem neighborhood of Issawiyehrather than in a family plot closer to the Old City. Alloun’s body was only handed over to the family before dawn on the day of the funeral — after more than a week of delay.
Israel uses such tactics to try and break Palestinians’ spirits, but they have the opposite effect. Instead of crushing people, Israel’s policies of punishment and control increase social cohesion, communal solidarity and defiance.
Qassim Badran from Kufr Aqab, near Jerusalem, grieved the death of his 16-year-old son Ishaq, who was killed by Israeli forces in the Old City earlier this month after an alleged stabbing attempt. Following his son’s killing, Badran was threatened with home demolition and the revocation of his Jerusalem residency as his village is located behind the massive wall Israel is building in the West Bank. His son’s body has not yet been returned to him.
“I have also been subjected to an economic war — my bank account was frozen due to an old tax issue that dates back 12 years and Israeli authorities [have] issued a travel ban against me,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
“It was my son’s own decision to respond to Israel’s ongoing crimes and his decision alone, but I will never disown him or blame him for what he did,” Badran added.
Like all other parents from Jerusalem, Badran reiterated that he will never agree to receive the body of his child unless all Jerusalem families are able to reclaim the bodies of their children.
“We are completely unified,” he explained. “I will treat the son of Jabal al-Mukabir [a neighborhood in East Jerusalem] as if he were my own.”
So far, families awaiting the return of loved ones’ bodies have decided against submitting a petition to the Israeli high court. The families fear that the court will reject their case.
And they do not have much trust in Israel’s judicial system.
An Israeli public prosecutor last week rejected a request submitted by a number of families, according to Rami Saleh, head of the Jerusalem-based branch of the legal aid center.
During a press conference in Ramallah last week, martyrs’ families stated that they will not allow Israel to exploit their need to reclaim the bodies as a means of breaking their spirits.
Lawyer Muhammad Alayan, father of Bahaa Alayan, shot dead by Israeli police last month, vowed to keep on campaigning.
“Every inch of this soil is Palestinian,” Muhammad said. “And wherever my son will be buried, I know that he will be on Palestinian land.”