Fighting to bury their sons: on the necropolitics of occupation

In Roar Magazine

In her 1969 book On Death and Dying, Swiss psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined five major emotional stages that people tend to go through while coping with the death or loss of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Over three months have passed since the killing of his son Bahaa, but Muhammad Alayan has not been able to experience any of them. The 60-year-old lawyer has been too immersed in the struggle to recover the body of his slain son to actually contemplate his loss.

“More than a hundred days have gone and I couldn’t sit with my wife and three (remaining) children at one table together and realize that there is an empty chair no longer occupied by Bahaa,” Muhammad Alayan told me. “We have had no time to discuss his absence because our entire lives have revolved around getting him back.”

Parents whose children’s bodies or remains are detained by Israel, either in morgues or in the infamous “cemeteries of numbers” (where the remains of at least 268 Palestinian combatants have been buried for decades in closed military zones) wait to receive their bodies as if they were waiting to welcome living people after their release from their prisons.

Muhammad Alayan completely identifies with this sentiment. Waiting to warm his son’s body with his own palms gives him the sense that Bahaa, needing a hug, might knock at the door at any moment.

“While people around the world wait for midnight to light up fireworks, we are waiting to warm the bodies of our children,” Muhammad Alayan wrote on his Facebook page on New Year’s Eve.

For Alayan, the battle to release the corpse of his 23-year-old son from Israeli morgues and cover him with the warm soil of his country, the country he has sacrificed his life for, has left no room for grief. Private grief, Alayan feels, is a privilege he cannot afford right now. In fact, he hasn’t been able to shed a single tear over the loss of Bahaa, who was his best friend, since his killing on October 13, 2015. As the driving force behind the popular campaign to retrieve martyrs’ bodies in Jerusalem, Alayan is encumbered with the onerous obligation of appearing strong and sheltering his vulnerability and pain.

On October 13, the day of Bahaa Alayan’s killing, the Israeli security cabinet resumed the decades-long policy of withholding Palestinian martyrs’ corpses, which was unofficially halted in 2004. The stated purpose of the policy, included among a package of punitive measures declared at the outset of the latest Palestinian revolt, was to “deter” potential attacks against Israel and prevent their funeral processions from turning into mass protests.

Since the cabinet’s announcement to begin the temporary withholding of corpses, a total of 78 bodies have been detained, according to the Jerusalem Center for Legal Aid and Human Rights.

The detention of corpses in Israeli morgues, and concerns that they were being held in poor conditions, sparked mass protests, particularly in Hebron where thousands of Palestinians took to the streets on multiple occasions demanding Israel turn over the bodies. Far from dispiriting or intimidating Palestinians, Israel’s retaliatory measure of withholding the bodies of alleged Palestinian attackers has propelled Palestinians into direct action. Not trusting the Palestinian Authority to act on the matter, the families of Palestinians whose bodies are detained by Israel looked to the streets for support. Support came, pouring. The case of detained corpses did not just relate to the families but became a national cause.

Israel began releasing the bodies gradually, and in patches. On 2 January, 2016, tens of thousands in Hebron south of the occupied West Bank participated in the funeral of 17 martyrs whose bodies had been released in the previous day despite bad weather.

Following the gradual release of corpses, ten bodies of Palestinians killed since October remain in detention in Israeli morgues. All bodies belong to Palestinian residents of Jerusalem. Among the bodies detained is that of Bahaa Alayan, along with Thaer Abu Ghazaleh, child Hassan Manasra, Alaa Abu Jamal, Ahmad Abu Shaaban, child Mou’taz Oweisat, Omar Iskafi, Abd al-Mohsen Hassouna, Mosa’ab Ghazali, and Muhammad Nimer.

On 21 January, 2016, the families staged a symbolic funeral for their children, carrying empty coffins in a march that reached the United Nations headquarters in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. “Empty coffins are too heavy,” remarked Muhammad Alayan after the march.


The battle of Jerusalem’s families to reclaim, mourn and bury their slain children is part of the struggle against Israel’s system of surveillance over public space and bodies. Israel’s efforts to impose control over a city and a people in rebellion is not limited to the living bodies and the living spaces but extends to the dead as well. Even in their death, Palestinians are perceived to possess the sort of power that shakes Israel’s illusory sovereignty over Jerusalem to its core. Even in their death, Palestinians have the capacity to mobilize thousands to attend their funerals and reclaim, if only temporarily, their urban space.

This symbolic power carried by dead bodies poses a challenge to Israel’s control and surveillance over its colonial subjects and buttresses its obsession with security and order. Israel’s fear of dead Palestinian bodies, which leads to their treatment as a security threat, manifests itself in the conditions laid out to release the bodies. The conditions stipulate burying the martyrs in areas located outside the boundaries of Israel’s wall, restricting the number of participants in the funerals, burying them in the dark and demanding a bail to guarantee that those conditions are fulfilled.

This policy of taking the dead hostage, imposing conditions on their release, and the psychological torture and blackmailing of their families constitute layers of Israel’s necropolitical regime of dispossession. In this regime, Palestinians are punished and persecuted even posthumously, and Israel controls Palestinian sites of burial, the freedom of Palestinians to mourn and the right to honor their dead publicly and properly.

This apparatus of surveillance, control and punishment has been backed by Israel’s judicial system. This explains why Palestinian families have opted against taking the case of detained corpses to the Israeli Supreme Court, known — in true Orwellian fashion — as the High Court of Justice. Their reluctance stems from Palestinians’ confidence that Israel’s top court will uphold the position of the government. And their conviction is fully justified in a state where security trumps justice and where even the so-called “liberal” High Court, as it is hailed in the West, has approved and legitimized flagrantly arbitrary policies such as punitive home demolitions, to name but one.

Meanwhile, Muhammad Alayan reiterates that only after laying the body of Bahaa to rest will he find some privacy and time to reflect on his death. Only then will grief turn from an unattainable luxury to a long overdue right.


A scout leader, community organizer and self-taught graphic designer, Bahaa Alayan was a widely admired grassroots activist in Jerusalem. He helped found the first public library in Jabal al-Mukabber, a village southeast of Jerusalem in 2013. Striving to offer an alternative space for Palestinian children, youths and kids with disability, he helped establish an independent Palestinian community center in his village one year earlier.

He also founded the first all-female scout group in Jabal al-Mukabber, training the guides and encouraging them to challenge social taboos and conservativism. So inspiring was Bahaa for those young women and girls that they have pledged to build on his work with the local community and keep the scouts alive and growing as Bahaa had always dreamed.

In March 2014, Alayan and his friends organized a human chain of readers around the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City, mobilizing thousands of Palestinians to carry their books and reclaim the streets of their city.

Bahaa was aware of the intersection of political, social and economic struggles that Palestinians in Jerusalem had to undertake. While he believed in the importance of culture and education, he also rejected Israel’s efforts to depoliticize and co-opt culture and education for the objective of internalizing the occupation.

Living under occupation in Jerusalem is a struggle for survival as the vast majority of Palestinians in the Holy City live below the poverty line and can hardly make ends meet. It is convenient, perhaps even logical, for people to be preoccupied by their everyday problems such as high taxes, fines, lack of services, poor infrastructure, scarcity of classrooms, and so on. Living in Jabal al-Mukabber, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Alayan was no stranger to those problems. But he also believed that they are the fruit of the political reality created by Israel.

Important as it is to foster a vibrant, educated community in Jerusalem, it is equally important, Bahaa argued, for this community to be self-sufficient and politically conscious. Born in this contentious climate, cultural activities in Jerusalem have to strengthen Palestinian identity and foster political consciousness rather than domesticate it; they should seek to lay a solid ground for full liberation and decolonization rather than incite assimilation in the Israeli state and society. Despite his faith that knowledge and culture are potent weapons for people under occupation, Bahaa recognized their limitation in the murky reality Palestinians are forced to navigate.


On October 13, 2015, Bahaa Alayan and Bilal Ghanem launched a knife and gun attack on an Israeli bus in the Jewish-only settlement of Armon HaNatziv, a colony constructed and expanded on lands confiscated from their native Jabal al-Mukabber following the 1967 occupation of East Jerusalem.

The attacks left three Israelis dead and several others injured. Bahaa Alayan was eventually executed by Israeli police while Ghanem was injured and arrested. On November 9, 2015, Abu Ghanem was indicted on charges of murdering three Israelis and attempted murder of seven others.

The dual bus attack by Bahaa Alayan and Bilal Ghanem occurred at the height of the Palestinian youth uprising against Israeli occupation which has marked the largest wave of extended unrest in Jerusalem and the West Bank since the second Intifada. The escalation prompted many analysts to wonder whether this could be regarded as the “third Intifada,” with some calling it the “Intifada of knives” as individual stabbing attacks have been the underlying tactic adopted by young Palestinians.

Beyond the shock and disbelief that overcame Muhammad Alayan at Bahaa’s involvement in planning and executing the bus attack, he had to be clear in his position.

Bahaa was a bright young man who helped amplify the voices of those around him. He was the son of a generation abandoned by the political and intellectual elite and left to chew on the charade of peace talks and the so-called “political process.”

Muhammad Alayan himself spent ten years in Israeli occupation jails for his affiliation with the Palestinian Liberation Organization before his release in a prisoner exchange deal in 1985. But he believes that the actions of Bahaa and many others are a damning indictment of the failure of the old guard and his own generation. Muhammad doesn’t believe that he had passed the torch of resistance to his son. Rather, he blames his generation for creating the political vacuum that deprived his son’s generation of hope.

Bahaa’s involvement in the bus attack led Israeli occupation forces to demolish the house of the Alayans on January 4, 2016. The family has been living in a tent next the rubble of their demolished home ever since.

The involvement of Muhammad Alayan’s generation in paving the way for the Oslo Accords, which hijacked the first Intifada and transmuted it from an unprecedented popular uprising to a mere quest for power and statehood; this involvement has led Israeli occupation forces to demolish the future of the entire next generation.

In the face of increasing Israeli colonization, land theft, restrictions and assaults, Bahaa Alayan used the knife or the gun to articulate his people’s grievances. The passionate reader resorted to violence not because he had nothing to lose but because he thought this was the way to reclaim agency and change the status quo.

Muhammad Alayan respects his son’s decision and so do Bahaa students at the scouts and his colleagues at the community center. Bahaa’s killing did not only make Muhammad rediscover his son but it also made him rethink his political experience and rediscover his fighting spirit.

There is still fire in the old man’s belly. In an uprising led by teenagers and youths in their early twenties, Muhammad Alayan has fast become a role model for the many. “Even my sons, especially Baha, never treated me as a father figure and we never had that paternal hierarchy at our home,” Muhammad recalls. “But people are so disillusioned with their current leadership that they are looking for reference points and leading figures to occupy that void, leading many to regard me as a father figure or example.”

This makes the already heavy weight on Muhammad’s shoulders even more burdensome, with so many counting on him for inspiration and support.

He found himself marching in protests, speaking at the funerals of other martyrs, being beaten up by Israeli soldiers, sleeping in a tent after Israeli bulldozers razed his home to the ground. He had to put up with all the fake promises and outright lies of the Palestinian Authority and its agents, who left Palestinians alone in their fight and only reappeared to pose in front of the cameras.

But those testing months have also provided him with warmth and overwhelming love and popular solidarity. They have offered an example of mutual aid among Palestinian families as the shared cause of reclaiming their children’s corpses increased their solidarity and reinforced social cohesion, keeping alive the memory of their slain loved ones in the process.


Collective memory is a strategic battlefield between Zionists and Palestinians. Since its creation in 1948, Israel has systemically and institutionally worked to erase the Palestinian narrative, redefining the uprooting of hundreds of thousands of natives as “independence,” calling ethnically-cleansed villages “abandoned,” and fragmenting Palestinian society.

Refusing to return corpses of Palestinian martyrs is part of this war on Palestinian memory, as Israel seeks to turn the dead into numbers and to prevent Palestinians from celebrating them as heroes. The policy, however, has completely backfired: withholding the bodies has created a strong bond among martyrs’ families and has only increased people’s respect for the martyrs’ sacrifices.

Thus, instead of throwing the stories of those martyrs into oblivion, Israel’s policy of withholding Palestinian bodies led the entire society to share the martyrs’ stories and to remember and honor them.

“When I receive Bahaa’s body, I will turn my attention to those buried in the cemeteries of numbers,” said Muhammad, referring to those Palestinians buried anonymously in graveyards designed by Israel as military zones.

Even though withholding bodies weighs heavily on the hearts of those waiting to bid their loved ones farewell, it has brought them together and urged them to organize without waiting for instructions from above. And their individual battles to retrieve the bodies of their children have morphed into a collective struggle against oblivion.

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