Movement restrictions on Jericho continue for 16th day

Ben Gvir boycotts cabinet meeting as Israel returns body of Palestinian stabber

Release of remains of 22-year-old who tried to attack troops in February comes after those of 3 gunmen handed back to families on Friday; troops come under fire in West Bank raids

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a Border Police ceremony in Latrun on May 2, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir attends a Border Police ceremony in Latrun on May 2, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

Hardline minister Itamar Ben Gvir said he was boycotting a weekly government cabinet meeting on Sunday morning, as Israel returned the body of a Palestinian man who had been killed after attempting to stab Israeli soldiers in the West Bank earlier this year.

The release of 22-year-old Sharif Hassan Rabaa’s body for burial came after Israel on Friday returned the bodies of three Palestinian gunmen who were killed in a shootout with soldiers in the West Bank in March, drawing protests from Ben Gvir and amplifying a spiraling fight within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition.

On February 9, Rabaa tried to stab Israeli soldiers near the al-Fawar refugee camp, close to the West Bank city of Hebron, before being fatally shot by the troops. He was taken to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where medical officials declared him dead.

In a statement carried by Palestinian media, the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs said it had received the body, and was preparing to hand it over to his family in the town of ad-Dhahiriya for burial.

The release of Rabaa’s body was approved by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

Israeli security forces regularly take custody of terrorists’ bodies. Sometimes the bodies are later returned to the assailants’ families for burial. At other times they are withheld — to prevent celebratory funerals in attackers’ hometowns, or with a view to using them in negotiations to retrieve the bodies of Israeli soldiers held by terror groups.

National Security Minister Ben Gvir and other ministers of his far-right Otzma Yehudit party said they would boycott the government’s weekly cabinet meeting over the return of the bodies, along with the release of a Jordanian parliamentarian accused of attempting to smuggle over 200 firearms into Israel.

“In the last few days, the prime minister and defense minister continue their policy, the release of the Jordanian terrorist, the release of the bodies of terrorists, etc. This is unacceptable to us and cannot continue like this. The policy must change, the government must switch to a completely right-wing policy. We received a mandate from the public to change direction – and that must happen,” Ben Gvir said in a statement Sunday.

Last week, Ben Gvir clashed with Netanyahu, as the far-right minister fumed over his exclusion from security deliberations on fighting between Israel and Gaza-based terror groups.

On Wednesday, Otzma Yehudit announced it would skip votes at the Knesset throughout the day, citing the government’s “feeble” response to the rocket fire from Gaza. The ruling Likud party responded by telling Ben Gvir he could leave the government if he did not like the way Netanyahu runs it.

In 2020, Israel’s cabinet decided that the country could hold the bodies of Palestinians accused of murder, injuring others, or being in possession of arms, even if they were not affiliated with the Hamas terror group. The measure is used inconsistently, and bodies of Palestinians accused of committing attacks have been returned in numerous cases.

This photo from the IDF shows a knife it says was used in an attempted stabbing near the West Bank city of Hebron, February 9, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Previous Israeli policy was only to hold onto the bodies of Hamas terrorists for a potential prisoner exchange with the terror group, which is currently holding two Israeli captives and the remains of two Israeli soldiers. Others were returned to their families for burial, though the transfer was sometimes delayed as Israel sought guarantees from the family that funeral attendance be limited.

Whether holding the bodies of attackers is an effective policy remains a subject of debate within the security establishment. Some believe that it gives Israel additional leverage in negotiations with Hamas, as well as acting as a deterrent against attacks. Others see it as ineffective, based on shaky legal ground, and fear it gives Israel a black eye on the world stage.

Troops clash with gunmen in West Bank raids, Jericho restrictions remain

Tensions between Israel and the Palestinians have been high for the past year, with the Israeli military conducting near-nightly raids in the West Bank amid a series of deadly Palestinian terror attacks.

In operations early Sunday, troops came under fire by Palestinian gunmen in the northern West Bank city of Nablus and the town of Bayt Sahur, near Bethlehem, the Israel Defense Forces said, adding that soldiers returned fire.

In Kafr Qaddum, Israeli troops used riot dispersal means against Palestinians hurling stones, the IDF said. Palestinian media reported that a 12-year-old boy was shot with a rubber-tipped bullet. His condition was unclear.

No soldiers were reported hurt in the clashes.

Six wanted Palestinians were detained in the raids, and an assault rifle along with other military equipment was seized in the northern West Bank town of al-Yamun, the IDF added.

An assault rifle and military equipment seized by IDF troops in the West Bank town of al-Yamun, early May 7, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Meanwhile, heavy restrictions on movement in and out of the West Bank city of Jericho imposed by the IDF amid a rise in intelligence alerts of potential terror attacks continued Sunday for the 16th day in a row.

In recent months, several Palestinians set out from Jericho and the surrounding area to carry out attacks against Israeli civilians and security forces.

Palestinian attacks in Israel and the West Bank have killed 19 people since the beginning of the year and left several more seriously hurt.

At least 101 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of the year, most of them while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces, but some were uninvolved civilians and others were killed under circumstances that are being investigated.

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