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Should Israel Keep the Bodies of Dead Palestinian Terrorists From Their Families?

Dispatch from Hebron: A longstanding security policy is aimed at avoiding violence after funerals, but its punitive nature is having little effect

Elhanan Miller
December 17, 2015
Photo: Elhanan Miller
Talal Sharif stands next to a banner depicting his son Malik, 25, who was shot dead while trying to stab a soldier at the Etzion Bloc on November 5.Photo: Elhanan Miller
Photo: Elhanan Miller
Talal Sharif stands next to a banner depicting his son Malik, 25, who was shot dead while trying to stab a soldier at the Etzion Bloc on November 5.Photo: Elhanan Miller

Ten minutes before he pulled out a knife and tried to stab a solider guarding a bus stop at an Etzion intersection, south of Jerusalem, Malik Sharif phoned his father in Hebron.

“Dad, I want you to be pleased with me,” Sharif told his father, Talal. “The last words I want to hear in my life are ‘God is pleased with you.’ ”

Talal, a 52-year-old taxi driver, said he immediately realized his son had decided to carry out an attack against Israelis and implored him to return home, but to no avail. “He said: ‘It’s done. I’ve prayed to God and I can’t go back.’ ” Talal got in his car and sped north, but at a checkpoint outside the city, he heard on the radio that “a security incident” had occurred at the Etzion Bloc, its perpetrator killed. He was too late. Talal made a U-turn, and, seated in the car beneath his home, waited for his son’s name to be announced.

The attack took place on Nov. 5, but more than a month later, the IDF has not yet delivered Malik Sharif’s body to his family for burial. Sitting in a makeshift protest tent outside the Red Cross building in central Hebron, the largest city in the West Bank, Talal joined with the fathers of 17 other local Palestinians who carried out attacks over the past two months, and whose bodies are being held by Israel. The total number of recent Palestinian attackers held by the army is 29, an IDF spokesman said.

The entrance to the tent displays a large banner reading “we want our children” in colloquial Palestinian Arabic. Next to portraits of the attackers, typically dubbed “martyrs,” a mock wood coffin holds woolen blankets folded into the shape of a human body, shrouded in a Palestinian flag.

“What other country in the world holds on to bodies?” asks Adnan Asa’id, whose 23-year-old son Hamam was shot dead while attempting to stab a soldier in Hebron’s Tel Rumeidah neighborhood. “They want to break our resolve, but our resolve will not break. I don’t understand why the world is silent.”

Adnan Asa’id stands next to a banner depicting his son Hamam, 23, shot dead while trying to stab an Israeli soldier in Hebron, Oct. 27, 2015. (Photo: Elhanan Miller)
Adnan Asa’id stands next to a banner depicting his son Hamam, 23, shot dead while trying to stab an Israeli soldier in Hebron, Oct. 27, 2015. (Photo: Elhanan Miller)

Israel’s longstanding policy of withholding bodies of Palestinian terrorists has been explained by the security establishment in the need to prevent mass funerals from getting out of hand and turning violent. Only once the family commits to holding a small, low-key funeral, will it receive the body of its loved one. But while some Israeli legislators laud the policy as an effective deterrent in the face of rampant terrorism with no clear address, human rights organizations view it as a punitive measure that violates international law.

In November 2014, Likud MK Danny Danon, who is now Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, drafted a bill banning the return of terrorists’ bodies to their families. “We’ve seen what happened recently, when these ruthless terrorists become heroes and their funeral processions are used to recruit additional terrorists,” Danon told Israeli radio station Arutz Sheva. The law was never brought to a vote, but in October 2015, the security cabinet approved a motion by Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to ratify the policy. The main objection came from Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, a member of Danon and Erdan’s party. During a Knesset hearing on Nov. 4, Yaalon argued that unlike home demolitions and the revocation of Jerusalem residency from the family members of terrorists, the denial of bodies from their families is utterly ineffective. With Erdan wielding authority over Jerusalem and Yaalon over the West Bank, the result of their disagreement is a seemingly random, unevenly implemented policy.

“It’s hard to discern any logic or consistent argument here,” says Dalia Kerstein, executive director of Hamoked, an Israeli human rights organization who has been pleading the case of terrorists’ families before the High Court of Justice for over three decades. “Withholding bodies is illegal under every international and Israeli standard. It’s like other measures Israel takes when it doesn’t know what to do.”

But arguing in favor of retributive justice, Almagor, an organization representing families of terror victims, has been lobbying the government to resume the practice of burying terrorists in specially designated IDF cemeteries. “Glorifying terrorists hurts the terror victims and the bereaved families,” a message on its website reads. “The sense of closure, dependent on justice meted out to terrorists, dissipates when their bodies are returned to the Palestinian Authority. It is especially painful to witness the murderers who harmed them being honored.”

At the protest tent in Hebron recently, a teenager with a black-and-white keffiyeh wrapped around his head poured black coffee into paper espresso cups and distributed them to a crowd of fewer than 10 middle-aged men. Gazing at the empty plastic chairs lining the walls, Hassan Faroukh, a 55-year-old accountant at the Palestinian Ministry of Endowments, was deeply offended by the pitiful turnout. On Nov. 1, his son Fadi was shot dead while attempting to stab a soldier during a riot outside the village of Beit Anoun. Fanoukh never saw the body but was shown a photo of its torso on someone’s mobile phone.

“There’s no solidarity,” he said. “The tent should be full at all times. There should be delegations coming and going from universities, from institutions.”

While the “al-Quds Intifadah” may be named after Jerusalem, Hebron and its surrounding villages have produced more attackers than any other city. According to the Israeli Security Agency, of the 112 terrorists captured or killed after carrying out attacks since Sept. 12, 50 hailed from Hebron and the surrounding villages. That’s 45 percent of the attackers.

Hassan Faroukh stands next to a banner displaying his son, Fadi, 27, killed while trying to stab an Israeli soldier outside the village of Beit Anoun on Nov. 1, 2015. (Photo: Elhanan Miller)
Hassan Faroukh stands next to a banner displaying his son, Fadi, 27, killed while trying to stab an Israeli soldier outside the village of Beit Anoun on Nov. 1, 2015. (Photo: Elhanan Miller)

The fathers of the attackers cite frustration with Israeli “oppression,” violent images on the news, the violation of Palestinian women’s honor, and daily friction with the settlers of Hebron as the main reasons for their sons’ actions.

But Majed, a language teacher at Hebron University who would only speak if his family name were not printed, says that tribalism and a low level of education play a crucial role as well.

“Above and beyond other cities in the West Bank, society in Hebron is very closed. People here are startlingly traditional,” he said. “There’s something called faz’ah, or a call to arms. ‘How could my neighbor be killed without me doing a thing?’ is part of the culture here.”

Revenge was key to Malik Sharif’s decision to take a knife and target an Israeli soldier, his father admitted, following the death of two of his cousins, Farouq and Basel Sidr, just days earlier. He said Basel, 19, tried to stab soldiers at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on Oct. 14 and was shot dead. On Oct. 29, his cousin Farouq, 19, tried to stab soldiers in Hebron and was shot dead. In neither case were the soldiers injured.

In Hebron, frustration with a corrupt Palestinian Authority is another explaining factor, said Suhaib Zahra, who teaches Arabic to foreign NGO volunteers working in the city.

“The PA collaborates with Israel,” he said, standing next to plainclothes security officers who were busy pulling away truant schoolchildren from a new observation tower being erected by the IDF. “This is a disgrace.”

According to Zahra, most schools and hospitals in Hebron were built through private donations, while government officials lined their pockets with millions of dollars of international aid.

“The PA doesn’t contribute in developing Palestinian society,” he said, undaunted by the presence of security personnel all around him. “Even these guys don’t like the PA as individuals, but they receive their orders and are forced to obey them. The policies of Israel, the United States, and the PA force these security men to be traitors to their people, who are on the verge of explosion. They could revolt and overthrow the PA at any moment.”

Although Talal Sharif does not use Facebook, he nevertheless decided to review Malik’s account post mortem and find out what his son was thinking. He had sensed that something was wrong when—a week before the attack—Malik suddenly withdrew from his friends and resigned from his two jobs, at a dairy factory and at a coffee shop. To his astonishment, Talal discovered that all the warning signs were right there, written on Malik’s wall.

Days before the attack, he posted a prayer for his mother not to be sad and a wish to meet the “lovely-eyed maidens” who, according to Islamic tradition, await martyrs in heaven. On Oct. 24, Malik posted a photo of Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, the disabled founder of Hamas killed in an Israeli airstrike in Gaza in March 2004, surrounded by smiling Palestinian children. “The children around you have grown up, O Sheikh,” he wrote; “matured to the stage where they can bomb Haifa and Tel Aviv.”

Malik Sharif could easily have been one of those kids. Born in 1990, he was among the older attackers in this round of violence, whose average age according to statistics collected by Nehemia Gershuni-Aylho, a data analyst at Baummann-Ber-Rivnay Advertising Agency, is 22. Yet even Malik was too young to remember the historic handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in September 1993 and the promise it held for a better future. Unlike his father Talal, who used to sell building materials and paint all across Israel and who speaks fluent Hebrew, Malik scarcely left Hebron, had no personal Israeli acquaintances, and spoke no Hebrew.

Similar to most Palestinian youths who have carried out attacks since the murder of Eitam and Na’amah Henkin south of Nablus on Oct. 1, Sharif was not particularly religious and belonged to no political faction. His father characterized him as a member of the “Facebook generation,” a generation of kids more concerned with their physical appearance than with worship and “who put styling wax in their hair.”

As evening fell, young men sitting in coffee shops gathered round television screens, blowing thick smoke from hookahs at images of an ambulance carrying away an Israeli man, critically injured in a stabbing attack just outside the Tomb of the Patriarchs.

“God help us from what’s coming,” said Talal Sharif.


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Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.