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Gantz rules Israel won’t return body of Palestinian terrorist Nasser Abu Hmeid

Founding member of Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades died of cancer in custody; defense minister holds assessment with security officials, makes decision based on previous cabinet ruling

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

People gather with photos of Palestinian Nasser Abu Hmeid for a protest outside the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) mission headquarters in Gaza City on December 20, 2022.  (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)
People gather with photos of Palestinian Nasser Abu Hmeid for a protest outside the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) mission headquarters in Gaza City on December 20, 2022. (Mahmud HAMS / AFP)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Wednesday said Israel would not return the body of a Palestinian terrorist who died of cancer while serving time in an Israeli prison a day earlier.

Nasser Abu Hmeid, 51, was a founding member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades terror group, the armed wing of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party. He had been serving multiple life sentences since 2002, after being convicted in the deaths of seven Israelis during the Palestinians’ Second Intifada, or uprising, against Israel in the early 2000s.

Gantz’s office said the decision not to release Abu Hmeid’s body for burial was made following an assessment he held with senior security officials and a previous security cabinet ruling.

Two years ago, Israel’s cabinet ruled that the country could hold the bodies of Palestinians accused of murder, injuring others, or in possession of arms, even if they were not affiliated with the Hamas terror group.

Previous Israeli policy was only to hold onto the bodies of Hamas terrorists for a potential prisoner exchange with the terror group. Others were returned to their families for burial.

Whether holding the bodies of attackers is an effective policy is 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 and based on shaky legal ground.

Despite the ruling, there have been cases where Israel has released the bodies of Palestinians accused of committing attacks.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks at the IDF Central Command headquarters in Jerusalem, November 23, 2022. (Elad Malka/Defense Ministry)

The Israel Prison Service (IPS) confirmed Abu Hmeid’s death in a Tel Aviv-area hospital on Tuesday morning. It said he had been terminally ill and was hospitalized a day earlier. The service added that “as in every case of this kind, the incident will be investigated.”

The Palestinian Prisoners Club, a group representing former and current prisoners, said Abu Hmeid was diagnosed with cancer in August 2021.

Palestinian officials blamed Israel for Abu Hmeid’s death. PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh accused Israel of “deliberate medical negligence.”

Shtayyeh said he was mourning Abu Hmeid’s death “in the name of the government and our Palestinian people.”

Hamas said Abu Hmeid’s passing was a “serious crime” against Palestinian prisoners and the Palestinian people. It called for “a real escalation in the occupation prisons” in response to his death.

The IPS rejected the allegations of negligence, saying the prisoner “received regular and close care from IPS medical staff and external professionals.”

Gantz on Wednesday also rejected the “false claims that Israel is involved in his death.”

Palestinian terrorist Nasser Abu Hmeid in an undated photograph (Wafa)

In 2002, Abu Hmeid, the right-hand man to arch-terrorist Marwan Barghouti, was convicted of murdering seven Israelis — Eliyahu Cohen, Binyamin and Talia Kahane, Gad Rejwan, Yosef Habi, Eli Dahan and Salim Barakat — in a number of terror attacks during the Second Intifada that he either personally carried out or directed from afar. During the trial, Israeli authorities described him as a “killing machine.”

He was also convicted of 12 counts of attempted murder and a number of other security-related charges and has been serving multiple life sentences.

He had previously been found guilty of murdering five Palestinians who collaborated with Israel in 1990 but was released a few years later as part of the Oslo Accords.

As his health took a turn for the worse, Abu Hmeid was taken to the Shamir Medical Center on Monday, where he was given medication to control his pain.

His mother was in the process of getting permission to visit him in the hospital when he died, according to the official Palestinian news outlet Wafa. His family was previously allowed to visit him in the hospital in January after he underwent surgery to remove a tumor in his lung.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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