IDF chief tells ministers it was a mistake to return terrorists’ bodies

IDF chief tells ministers it was a mistake to return terrorists’ bodies

Eisenkot responds to criticism over decision — which defense minister approved — to give back two corpses on Friday, says protocols have been changed

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a State Control committee meeting at the Knesset on August 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot attends a State Control committee meeting at the Knesset on August 16, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Following public criticism, the IDF chief of staff on Wednesday told the security cabinet that it was a “mistake” to give the bodies of two Palestinian terrorists to their families for burial last Friday,  officials said.

The remark did not seem to be directed toward the return of any terrorist’s remains, but to this specific case and the way in which it was handled.

The decision to give back the bodies on Friday, just before the beginning of shabbat, was approved by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

In Wednesday’s security cabinet meeting, IDF chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said the protocols for returning bodies had been changed for future cases. No details were given.

Liberman’s office said the army chief “clarified things” during the security cabinet meeting and “the minister accepted” Eisenkot’s proposals.

The return of their bodies sparked an outcry in Israel over the weekend, specifically from the family of slain IDF soldier Hadar Goldin whose remains are currently being held captive, along with the body of another fallen soldier and two living Israeli civilians, by the Hamas terrorist group in the Gaza Strip.

The family of the late IDF soldier Hadar Goldin speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv on November 5, 2017, announcing their intention to file a petition to the High Court. (Flash90)

“What happened on Friday was simply awful. Minutes before the beginning of shabbat, under the media radar, they returned the bodies of murderous terrorists,” Goldin’s mother, Lea, told the Ynet news site.

Israel maintains a policy of not returning the bodies of Palestinian terrorists if they meet one of two main conditions: if they belong to Hamas terrorist group or if the attack they perpetrated is deemed sufficiently severe.

In recent years, Israel has returned the bodies of dozens of terrorists, but generally does so in ways designed to not arouse public notice, often late at night or on weekends and holidays. It is also generally contingent upon the families agreeing to not hold a large public funeral, as Israel believes these events encourage others to commit terror attacks.

One of the bodies returned was that of Nimer Mahmoud Ahmad Jamal, who shot dead three Israelis in the Har Adar settlement in September. The other was that of Hamzeh Yousef Zamaareh, 19, who stabbed a civilian security guard in the hand earlier this month at the entrance to the Karmei Tzur settlement in the Etzion bloc. Both men were shot dead by security forces during the attacks.

From left to right: Solomon Gavriyah, Youssef Ottman and Or Arish, three Israelis killed in a terror attack outside the settlement of Har Adar on September 26, 2017 (Courtesy)

The 37-year-old Jamal from the village of Bayt Surik killed Border Police officer Solomon Gavriyah, 20, and two private security guards — Youssef Ottman, 25, of the nearby Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh, and Or Arish, 25, of Har Adar. The settlement’s security coordinator, Amit Steinhart, was wounded.

The issue of returning terrorists’ bodies is a deeply contentious one in Israel, with some arguing that the remains are “bargaining chips” for negotiations with Hamas to secure the release of the Israeli civilians and slain soldiers, while others say the practice has limited utility and is therefore not worth the ethical burden.

In December, the High Court of Justice ruled that the government had to pass legislation that would regulate the practice of holding Palestinian terrorists’ bodies or else it would have to release the remains currently in its possession.

On Monday, the court granted the government an additional day in court to argue that it could continue with the practice without dedicated legislation.

Supreme Court Justice Esther Hayut ruled that the state could delay the return of terrorists’ bodies until a new ruling is reached. The court also agreed to expand the bench for the new hearing from three judges to seven.

Hayut said the fresh High Court hearing will be held in June.

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