Life, Middle East

No burial for Palestinians in 'Cemeteries of Numbers'

Israel has agreed to return the bodies of Palestinians buried in special military cemeteries – but many cannot be found

No burial for Palestinians in 'Cemeteries of Numbers' Hassan Dawleh holding a picture of his brother Anis Dawleh, who died in prison in 1982. His body was kept in an Israeli military cemetery but after the army agreed to return it, decades later, they said they could not find the body. It is one of at least nine the army say they cannot find

By Kaamil Ahmed


A simple visiting slip, scrawled in Arabic on a faded piece of Red Cross-branded stationary, would eventually become key in proving where Anis Dawleh was when he died in 1980.

The slip was issued to Dawleh's mother, allowing her the rare opportunity to visit her son in an Israeli prison, just two days before his death. It would also confirm that he died in prison and had not yet been released, as the Israeli authorities would later suggest.

Dawleh's body is one of an estimated nine that cannot be located in Israel's “Cemeteries of Numbers” -- the military cemeteries in which anonymous numbers on grave-side stakes are used to identify Palestinians interred after being killed during alleged attacks on Israelis or while in detention.

In a region where the warring parties attach exceptional cultural and religious importance to burying their dead, the fact that some bodies have gone missing from these cemeteries has challenged just how far that respect extends between enemies.

"[Our] mother died in 2011 wishing she could have touched his face with her hand, that she could say farewell to him -- they denied her that," Dawleh's brother Hassan, 67, told Anadolu Agency.

He proudly keeps two photos in his home: a wrinkled, greyscale portrait of Dawleh during a spell with the Jordanian army; and a shot of a uniformed Yasser Arafat, the iconic late Palestinian leader, mourning Dawleh's death in a Beirut room adorned with posters of the 36-year-old.

Dawleh's case eventually became central to a Palestinian campaign aimed at securing the return of the bodies, led by the Jerusalem Legal Aid Center (JLAC) in cooperation with Israeli group HaMoked and other human rights lawyers.

"We want the body. We want our rights from Islam, according to our manners, our traditions, our customs,” Hassan said, adamant that his request was in line with the basic principles of all three Abrahamic faiths.

Neither Hassan nor his brothers or father could visit Dawleh at the time of his death, scattered as they were throughout Jordan, Lebanon and Syria as cogs in the Palestinian resistance. Only their late mother could rely on the intercession of the Red Cross to make visits every year or two.

When Hassan eventually returned from his years abroad to their family home in Qalqilya, a northern town in the occupied West Bank, he turned to the JLAC for help in retrieving his brother’s body.

Requests for information bounced between the lawyers and the military, which had initially said there was no trace of him.

“They said he was released alive,” Dawleh recalled, clutching the stack of weathered letters and records that proved otherwise. “How was he released before his death? So I insisted: I want to know what his fate was, what became of him.”

Their mother’s visiting slip and Red Cross medical records of a hunger strike that ended only five days before Dawleh's death were also supported by records from a post-mortem, which -- to Hassan's surprise -- was carried out two years after his brother's death.

The results were never given to the family.

The military admitted that Dawleh must have been in their custody, but they still did not know where the body was, making him one of the nine they would later claim could not be returned after all efforts had been exhausted, according to legal records from lawyers representing the families.

Several generations populate the military cemeteries -- from the height of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s and recent Israeli military operations in the blockaded Gaza Strip to the organized armed resistance of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Most of the missing bodies belong to the earliest generation, when the hasty burials and neglected graves had not yet been exposed by court cases and internal investigations that led to the most notorious cemetery, located near the occupied Golan Heights, being closed in 2003.

Sixteen graves had to be opened there in the search for Issa Zawahreh, a deceased Palestinian citizen of Jordan, without a single match being found until years later.

Andre Rosenthal, a human rights lawyer who witnessed the search, said what he saw was appalling: mechanical diggers churning up loose pieces of bone in the shallow, crudely numbered graves, revealing bodies buried without coffins and protected only by tattered plastic bags.

The identifying numbers, written in marker-pen, had faded into illegibility.

"We had reached a depth of about 50 centimeters. The two body bags were on top of another, too close to tell which was actually plot number 245 and which was the plot next to it," he told Anadolu Agency.

Animals had eaten the missing metal tags used for identifying the bodies, a military rabbi told Rosenthal -- who is one of the few to have visited the cemeteries, which are classed as closed military zones.

In court, the military had argued that bodies could have gone missing because, over time, the earth between the graves had shifted, relocating the corpses.

Rosenthal said conditions at other cemeteries had since improved, but he is still fighting two cases in which Palestinians killed in the Second Intifada had not yet been found.

The JLAC has also filed for the return of 116 bodies still in the cemeteries, but bemoans the lack of information. The state recently requested more time as it could not identify all the bodies on the list and lacked dedicated personnel to deal with the issue.

‘Maybe he didn't die’

In many cases, the families themselves have little in the way of information.

Nouman Taradeh, a nervous man who, typical of his generation, returned to his small town in the West Bank after his own stint in the Arab armies, was in school when news came that his brother, Abdul Kareem, had died in 1970 in Ras al-Naqourah, located on Israel's northern border with Lebanon.

His family was unaware that Abdul Kareem's body had been kept by Israel, or even that anything remained of it, until decades later, when Nouman asked the JLAC for help finding him.

His name was actually among 91 listed for return in 2012, but the body was never handed over -- with no explanation as to why.

The lack of information is what families struggle with the most, according to JLAC campaign organizer Salwa Hamad. There are at least 65 Palestinians listed as missing as part of the JLAC's campaign, because they do not know whether they are held by Israel or not.

“If they haven't seen the body, they think that maybe he’s still alive, maybe he didn’t die,” Hamad said.

“We have information about people killed in 1968, so it's not easy because it’s been such a long time,” she said. “Once a family came and gave us a picture of a man killed in 1947.”

Despite a 2013 order from then Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon to return all bodies, the policy has long held a certain political currency.

In 2009, the state modified an earlier commitment, saying it would only return the bodies of Fatah members, but not those of Hamas or Islamic Jihad fighters, after Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas.

In January of this year, the Israeli cabinet said it would retain the bodies of slain Hamas fighters in order to pressure the Gaza-based group to release the remains of two Israeli soldiers held since the 2014 Gaza war and two Israeli hostages.

The Israeli military did not respond to Anadolu Agency's requests for comment on the policy.

Mordechai Kedar, a professor at Israel's Bar-Ilan University and a former intelligence officer in the military, said the practice was necessary in light of the region’s stark political realities.

"Hamas is holding Israeli bodies; this happened formerly with the Egyptians and Jordanians. This is, unfortunately, the Middle East," he told Anadolu Agency.

"If we act according to different rules, our enemies will take advantage of the fact that we are playing according to European rules," he added.

He said he did not believe there had ever been a clear decision to hold onto the bodies of slain enemy fighters, but that the practice had developed as Israel negotiated for the return of its soldiers after each conflict.

But the JLAC and HaMoked argue otherwise, claiming that confiscating the bodies of slain Palestinians amounts to collective punishment and that the situation at the cemeteries violates the rules of the Geneva Convention regarding dignified burials.

Salah Abu Meizer was killed by Israeli army shelling in 1971 and his body was one of the earliest known to be interred at the Cemetery of Numbers.

By 1994, he was also one of the first to be officially declared missing after his son, Rajai -- himself a young child when his father died -- had asked lawyers for help in retrieving the remains.

Just who had buried his father was not known, nor was there any paperwork left from that time when, as the military admitted in court, they had not yet begun recording the identities of those buried at the site.

"The cause of my father belongs to all the Palestinian people, so I will not stop until I retrieve his remains," said Rajai.

"I made my mother a promise not to rest until he is buried in his hometown of Hebron [Al-Khalil]."

Additional reporting by Anees Barghouti

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