Israel delays returning body of Palestinian killed in shootout with IDF

Army confirms it won’t return Basel al-A’araj’s remains to his family, but declines to say if it ever agreed to

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Basel al-A'araj, who was killed in a gunfire exchange with Israeli troops on March 6, 2017, speaks in front of a group at a cemetery in Qabatiya, in the northern West Bank, on December 19, 2014. (Screen capture: YouTube)
Basel al-A'araj, who was killed in a gunfire exchange with Israeli troops on March 6, 2017, speaks in front of a group at a cemetery in Qabatiya, in the northern West Bank, on December 19, 2014. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The Israeli army on Friday apparently backtracked on its decision to hand over the remains of a prominent Palestinian activist killed earlier this week in a shootout with the IDF, the Palestinian Red Crescent said.

Basel al-A’araj, 31, was killed in his hideout in Ramallah after he opened fire at Israeli forces who came to arrest him, the army said.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for the PRCS said Israel had agreed to hand over the body of A’araj at the Walaja Junction on the outskirts of the West Bank town of Bethlehem, where A’araj lived. But on Friday the organization said the army decided to delay the handing over of A’araj’s body to his family until further notice.

The Israel Defense Forces confirmed that it would not yet be handing over the body, but declined to say if it had ever planned to.

The leader of terror group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Khader Adnan, called the decision to delay handing the body over an attempt by Israel “to reduce the mobilization of our people to the funeral of the martyr.”

A large funeral was anticipated after many Palestinians on social media urged attendance at Friday prayers at the family’s mourner’s tent.

A’araj was a noted activist in campaigns against Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and his killing sparked widespread mourning in Palestinian society as well as in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and among some in Israel.

A’araj was dubbed by Palestinian media an “intellectual martyr” for his popular activism and because he was reportedly a noted historian of the Palestinian armed struggle.

Israeli officials argue that the funerals of slain Palestinian attackers or suspected attackers often turn into mass rallies in support of Palestinian terrorism, and say they withhold the bodies until relatives agree to hold sparsely attended burials that don’t include calls for further attacks.

The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit declined to say whether A’araj’s family had initially agreed to those conditions.

Since his death, A’araj has become a symbol of popular Palestinian resentment toward security cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.

He and two others had been arrested by PA security forces in April while camping out in a mountainous area near Ramallah. PA police said they were found with weapons, hand grenades and camping equipment, the Palestinian news site Ma’an reported.

Shortly after A’araj was taken into custody, PA President Mahmoud Abbas told the German daily Der Spiegel that the operation had been the fruit of security cooperation between Israel and the PA.

But he was released six moths later from a Palestinian Authority prison after a Palestinian court ruled he must be set free. The ruling came as he was carrying out a hunger strike that grabbed headlines in Palestinian media.

Soon after his release from prison, he appeared on an Israeli wanted list.

A’araj was one of the best known personalities at protests in the Walaja area near his West Bank hometown of Bethlehem, and did not fit the classic profile of a wanted terrorist.

He was not known to be affiliated with any official terror group. He studied pharmacy in Egypt before returning to the West Bank, where he began working through various youth groups against the Palestinian Authority and against negotiations with Israel.

All this time, he maintained a high public profile, on social media, traditional media and in protests against the PA.

The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist terror group, called A’araj “one of the most important Palestinian resistance men,” and a “revolutionary intellectual.”

Judah Ari Gross and Avi Issacharoff contributed to this report.

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