Israel agonizes over the dirty business of terrorists’ corpses

Defense minister is resolved to return the bodies of Palestinian attackers to their families, despite objections from within the cabinet

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Palestinians carry the corpses of terrorists through the streets of Hebron during a massive funeral march in the West Bank, October 31, 2015. (Flash90)
Palestinians carry the corpses of terrorists through the streets of Hebron during a massive funeral march in the West Bank, October 31, 2015. (Flash90)

The Israeli leadership is divided over the morbid question of what to do with the corpses of Palestinians killed while carrying out attacks against soldiers and civilians.

Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan have come out against returning the bodies, in an attempt to prevent the drawn-out and often violent heroes’ funerals that attackers often receive.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, however, has opted to maintain Israel’s policy of returning the remains, though he has done so with the caveat that families of attackers forgo a large, public funeral.

While the security cabinet adopted Erdan and Netanyahu’s position last month, the prime minister left a fair amount of discretion for Ya’alon to act as he saw fit. Over the past week, the defense minister used that leeway to return the bodies of nine Palestinians killed during attacks, five of them to Hebron.

The Prime Minister’s Office asserted Saturday that the move did not actually go against the earlier cabinet decision, classifying it instead as an exception made in order to prevent more violent demonstrations in Palestinian cities. “Defense officials recommended releasing several bodies with the understanding that holding them would serve to stir up the West Bank,” the PMO said in a statement.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon. (Ohad Zwigenberg)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon. (Ohad Zwigenberg)

After this week’s cabinet meeting on Sunday, Ya’alon announced that Israel would continue to return bodies should the families continue holding small funerals, despite the fact that some families have already flouted those agreements.

Ya’alon qualified, “In one place in Hebron [the Palestinian Authority] did not control the masses and allowed a funeral with many participants, which we saw as damaging to our security. Therefore, I have stopped returning bodies to the Hebron area.”

Though the defense minister has discussed the issue in a handful of interviews, the bulk of the arguments between him and Erdan, the public security minister, have been restricted to the cabinet’s chambers.

Politicians and former security personnel on both sides of the issue have stepped in to fill that void, laying out their cases in the media. A third, far more impassioned group has also weighed in on the issue: the families of Staff Sgt. Oron Shaul and 1st Lt. Hadar Goldin, two IDF soldiers whose bodies were stolen by Palestinian militants during last summer’s war against Hamas in Gaza.

A jerrycan of kerosene on a roaring fire

The glorifying of the shahid, or “martyr” in Arabic, encourages others to follow suit and carry out attacks against Israeli civilians and security personnel, Erdan and others have charged.

“I don’t know who is whispering in [the defense minister’s] ear; he’s getting the wrong advice,” Avi Dichter, a former head of the Shin Bet security service who serves as a Knesset member for Likud, said Monday.

Avi Dichter speaks at a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel (photo credit: AP/File)
Avi Dichter (AP/File)

“It is a serious mistake to return the bodies of terrorists in these days. Returning those bodies is like pouring a jerrycan of kerosene onto a roaring fire,” he told Army Radio.

Dichter added that returning bodies of attackers who are Israeli citizens or residents of East Jerusalem was not as problematic, since Israel can ensure those funerals are small affairs, held at night.

But in the West Bank, the Palestinian Authority lacks the ability to control the funerals. Those events are hugely influential, “planting the seeds” of extremism that culminate in fresh attacks, he said.

Not only is the PA unable to stop these massive funerals, Dichter said, but members of the Palestinian leadership at times even actively participate in them.

“You can see who is carrying the body of the fakakta terrorist who the day before murdered a Jew because he is a Jew,” Dichter said, using a Yiddish word for screwy or messed up. “The person who is carrying the stretcher is a member of the Palestinian security forces!”

Grappling with their personal pain, the families of Goldin and Shaul, the slain IDF soldiers whose remains are being held in Gaza, also denounced Ya’alon’s decision to return the bodies of nine attackers.

IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)
IDF soldiers Oron Shaul (left) and Hadar Goldin (right) (Flash90)

“We are calling for the government to stick by its original decision to not return the bodies of terrorists for a hero’s burial by their families,” Hadar Goldin’s father, Simcha, wrote in a statement to the press on Sunday.

“At least not until they return the bodies of Hadar and Oron,” he added.

Oron Shaul’s mother, Zehava, reiterated that stance on Sunday, calling for an exchange.

“If they return terrorists’ bodies, it should be on the condition that my son, Oron Shaul, and Hadar Goldin come back home,” she told Army Radio.

Buying and selling corpses

Amos Gilad, director of the political-security division in Ya’alon’s Defense Ministry, countered the families’ arguments by pointing out that remains do not hold the same value in Palestinian culture as they do in Israeli culture.

“Those bodies have no importance in a negotiation since the other side does not see them as valuable,” Gilad, a former IDF general, said on Sunday. “In addition, the consensus in the defense establishment is that we should not be buying and selling corpses — these corpses are not relevant [to negotiations] and they have no benefit.”

Ami Ayalon in 2008 (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)
Ami Ayalon (Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)

Another former head of the Shin Bet security service, Ami Ayalon, supported Ya’alon’s decision.

“If I thought the families of soldiers who went missing in action were correct, I’d be prepared to reconsider it,” Ayalon told Army Radio on Monday.

“But in my experience, they don’t know who we are dealing with, and the possibility that we will get information or that we will actually receive the remains of the people we lost is basically nonexistent,” he added.

Therefore, Ayalon said, “We have to do the thing that is right legally, morally and operationally.”

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