Israel may completely halt return of Palestinian terrorists’ bodies for burial

Israel may completely halt return of Palestinian terrorists’ bodies for burial

Defense Minister Bennett orders sweeping move, which may lead to remains being used as bargaining chips in a swap deal; security cabinet must still approve decision

Relatives mourn over the body of Hamzeh Yousef Zamaareh, during his funeral in the West Bank city of Halhul, on February 17, 2018. (AFP Photo/Hazem Bader)
Relatives mourn over the body of Hamzeh Yousef Zamaareh, during his funeral in the West Bank city of Halhul, on February 17, 2018. (AFP Photo/Hazem Bader)

Newly installed Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has ordered all bodies of Palestinian attackers to be withheld and not returned to their families as a new deterrent against terrorism, his office said Wednesday.

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 using them in negotiations to retrieve the bodies of Israeli soldiers held by terror groups.

Announcing the proposed change, a statement by the defense minister’s office said bodies will now not be released in all cases, regardless of the organization the assailant was part of, and regardless of the type of attack they committed or attempted to commit.

A Defense Ministry source said the move by Bennett could help with the return of Israelis held captive in future swap deal, indicating that the remains may be used as bargaining chips. Army Radio said IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi supported the change.

A diplomatic source added that the policy change was raised by the family of Lt. Hadar Goldin, an IDF soldier whose body is being held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terrorist group, in their meeting last week with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Gaza-based Hamas terror group is widely believed to be holding the bodies of Goldin and Oron Shaul, another IDF soldier, as well as two Israeli civilians, and talks are reportedly being held regarding a potential swap.

The diplomatic source said the premier subsequently told security chiefs to examine the matter.

Leah Goldin, right, and her husband Simcha Goldin and other family members and supporters gather outside the state memorial ceremony for Operation Protective Edge at Mount Herzl on July 23, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Hassan Abd Rabbo, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority Prisoners Affairs Commission, told the Times of Israel that Bennett’s decision contravened the Geneva Conventions.

“This decision does not form a deterrent and constitutes collective punishment. It is immoral, contravenes religious rituals regarding burial and aims to cause psychological problems for families. The most basic right of a family is to bury its loved ones.”

Goldin’s parents, Leah and Simcha, welcomed Bennett’s decision in a statement, but urged him to also halt the release of all live terrorists as well.

“It is inconceivable that while the soldiers are at the hands of Hamas we would continue to release terrorists, dead or alive,” they said. “The release of terrorists is a reward that cannot be handed to Hamas while it holds the soldiers and the civilians.”

A statement by the defense minister’s office said Bennett had told the Israel Defense Forces and other security agencies to prepare for the policy change. The step requires approval by the security cabinet.

New Right party leader Naftali Bennett speaks during a press conference at the Expo Tel Aviv on September 5, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The move followed several discussions Bennett held with security chiefs, the statement said. It added that exceptions would be considered in special cases, such as when the assailants are minors.

“The move is aimed at preventing mass funerals in which Palestinians frequently call for further attacks. That has happened in the past even in cases where the families promised it would not,” Bennett’s office said.

The Defense Ministry source said Bennett would consider more moves soon to deter Palestinians from carrying out terror attacks, including worsening the conditions of security prisoners.

It was not clear whether the decision covers Palestinian inmates who die in Israeli custody.

On Tuesday, Jordan said it was working to repatriate the remains of Sami Abu Diak, who was serving three life sentences for voluntary manslaughter, kidnapping, attempted murder and opening fire on people, and died of cancer earlier in the day.

The High Court of Justice in September ruled that the military has the legal right to hold on to the bodies of slain terrorists for use as leverage in future negotiations with Palestinians.

The decision, adopted after a majority vote by an expanded panel of seven justices, reverses a 2017 High Court ruling on the matter and came in response to a petition by the families of six terrorists whose bodies are currently in the government’s possession.

The justices in their decision determined that withholding terrorists’ bodies falls within the purview of national security, and said the practice was not illegal under international law governing armed conflict.

Illustrative: The High Court of Justice in session. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The 2017 ruling came in response to a petition by Goldin’s family, requesting that the court order the government to implement a “plan of action” adopted by the security cabinet earlier that year. This plan stipulated that Israel would no longer return the bodies of Hamas terrorists killed during attacks and would instead bury them. Goldin was killed during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, alongside Sgt. Oron Shaul, whose body is also held by Hamas.

In response, the Knesset in March 2018 passed a law that made it legal for police to withhold the bodies of Palestinian assailants killed while carrying out terror attacks.

Under that law, district police commanders could determine whether to release terrorists’ bodies for burial. The law notes that the funerals of Palestinian terrorists increasingly feature praise of terrorism and incitement for further attacks.

Bennett’s move Wednesday would make it mandatory to withhold terrorists’ bodies.

Adam Rasgon contributed to this report.

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