Israel’s refusal to hand over the body of a prominent prisoner who died on a hunger strike this week has drawn renewed attention to its practice of keeping the remains of scores of Palestinians in freezers and numbered graves, partly as leverage to obtain the bodies of Israelis held by Palestinian groups.
Khader Adnan, a leader of the Palestinian armed group Islamic Jihad who was arrested by Israel on suspicion of supporting terrorism, was the first Palestinian to die during a hunger strike in an Israeli prison in more than 30 years. Since his death on Tuesday, Israel has not returned his body to his family and the government won’t say whether it intends to do so.
“It’s collective punishment,” said Hassan Jabareen, the director of Adalah, a Palestinian human rights organization and legal center. “These are bodies of people who live under Israeli occupation,” he added. Many other Palestinians along with international human rights groups have echoed this criticism, saying the withholding of bodies punishes the families of the dead collectively and could violate international law.
Since Israel occupied the West Bank in 1967, Israeli authorities have retained the bodies of hundreds of Palestinians who either died in prison or were killed during security incidents. They keep some in freezers for years at the National Center of Forensic Medicine, or bury them in graves with no headstones in what Palestinians call “the cemetery of numbers,” according to the Jerusalem Legal Aid & Human Rights Center.
In 2019, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that the military has the authority to keep the bodies of Palestinians captured during security incidents for the purpose of negotiations, specifically to exchange them for the bodies of Israelis held by Palestinian groups. Israeli officials have also suggested in the past that they believe holding onto the bodies could deter future Palestinian attacks and prevent exaltation of the dead at funerals, which can attract large, angry crowds.
Naftali Bennett, then defense minister, said in 2020: “We hoard the bodies of terrorists in order to hurt and put pressure on the other side,” and we “keep them with us as a bargaining chip.”
Israel says that Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that controls Gaza, is holding two Israeli citizens who are believed to be alive and the remains of two Israeli soldiers who were killed in a 2014 war between Hamas and Israel.
Israel has kept about 130 bodies since 2015, some buried in the cemeteries but most held in the freezers. They include the bodies of 12 other prisoners in addition to Mr. Adnan’s, according to the Jerusalem legal center. A total of more than 250 bodies are buried in the numbered cemeteries and some of those date as far back as the 1970s and 1980s, according to the center.
The Israeli military would not provide any numbers on bodies held.
Israeli authorities arrested Mr. Adnan on Feb. 5 and he immediately went on a hunger strike to protest his detention. He was found unconscious in his cell the morning of the 87th day and later pronounced dead.
The Israeli defense ministry and the prime minister’s office have declined to comment on whether a decision has been made on returning his body to the family, or where it is being held. The prison service said that it had transferred the body to the military on Tuesday, the day of his death, but a military spokesman said on Wednesday that it was not in their possession and as of Friday had not clarified the body’s location.
Israeli media have reported that the government does not plan to hand over the body to the family.
Mr. Adnan’s death prompted widespread condemnation among Palestinians and accusations that Israel was responsible. The Israel Prison Service denied responsibility, saying Mr. Adnan had chosen to go on hunger strike and had refused medical treatment.
Islamic Jihad and Hamas vowed retaliation and throughout Tuesday, they fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel. Israel responded with a series of airstrikes on Gaza, killing a 58-year-old man, according to the Gaza health ministry.
On Wednesday, the United Nations, Qatar and Egypt brokered a cease-fire and the same mediators are now working to get Mr. Adnan’s body released, according to Islamic Jihad spokesman Tariq Salmi and others.
“Retaining the bodies is a testament to the crimes of the occupation,” Mr. Salmi said.
In their public statements welcoming the cease-fire, both Islamic Jihad and Hamas demanded the return of Mr. Adnan’s body. But releasing his remains was not a condition of the cease-fire, Mr. Salmi said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has called on Israel to return the body “so his family can mourn and arrange a dignified burial according to their customs and beliefs.” It said it stood ready to facilitate the handover if asked.
Hours after his death, Mr. Adnan’s wife, Randa Adnan, said the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, and the Palestinian armed groups are obliged to honor his last wish to be buried near his father in his home village of Arraba in the West Bank.
“We want the sheikh among us,” she said, referring to a religious honorific given to her husband. “And we want him to be buried next to his father as he willed.”