Israel hands over bodies of Lion’s Den gunmen, sparking fresh coalition row

Ben Gvir vows to continue boycott of Knesset votes to protest decision to release remains of Palestinians killed while trying to attack an IDF post in March

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

File: Israeli soldiers stand guard at the Jit junction, west of Nablus, in the northern West Bank, after three Palestinian gunmen were killed during a shootout, on March 12, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP)
File: Israeli soldiers stand guard at the Jit junction, west of Nablus, in the northern West Bank, after three Palestinian gunmen were killed during a shootout, on March 12, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh / AFP)

Israel on Friday afternoon returned the bodies of three Palestinian gunmen who were killed in a shootout with Israeli soldiers in the West Bank in March, drawing protests from hardline minister Itamar Ben Gvir and amplifying a spiraling fight within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hardline coalition.

The move to release the bodies of Jihad Mohammad Shami, 24, Udai Othman Shami, 22, and Mohammad Ra’ed Dabek, 18 — members of the Nablus-based Lion’s Den terror group — was approved by Defense Minister Yoav Gallant.

The Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to The Times of Israel’s request for comment on the matter.

The three Lion’s Den members were shot dead on the morning of March 12 after they opened fire on a military post at the Jit Junction, west of Nablus, the Israel Defense Forces said at the time.

Their bodies, along with their firearms, were taken by the army. A fourth suspect, Ibrahim Awartani, turned himself in to the troops shortly after the gun battle.

In a statement carried by Palestinian media, the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Affairs said it had received the bodies, and was preparing to hand them over to their families for burial.

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 Itamar Ben Gvir slammed the decision to return the bodies on Friday, calling it “a serious mistake that will cost us dearly.”

“This government is a right-wing government and the public did not give us a mandate to return the bodies of terrorists or to avoid bombing Gaza,” Ben Gvir said in a statement, opening the latest in a spiraling series of public rifts.

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

Likud leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a vote in the assembly hall of the Knesset on December 28, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

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.

“Otzma Yehudit will continue to be absent from votes [in the Knesset] until the Israeli government changes direction and begins to uphold the policy for which it was elected,” Ben Gvir’s Friday statement continued.

Firearms and magazines seized from Palestinian assailants who opened fire at Israeli troops on March 12, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

In 2020, Israel’s cabinet decided 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. The measure is used inconsistently, and bodies of Palestinians accused of committing attacks have been returned in numerous cases.

Previous Israeli policy was only to hold onto the bodies of Hamas terrorists for a potential prisoner exchange with the terror group, which is 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.

Tzur Goldin, the brother of one of the soldiers whose remains are held by Hamas, also criticized the government for releasing the bodies, telling Army Radio they were “thieves in the night while the media’s attention is far away.”

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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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