(The following report by Nadya Raja Tannous tells of a policy of Israel’s military occupation over Palestine, as related to her by a guide this week during the Today’s Realities and Tomorrow’s Leaders Delegation to Palestine/Israel, co-sponsored by Interfaith Peace-Builders (IFPB), in partnership with American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).)
Walking around any primarily Palestinian city, the posters on the walls are hard to miss. As we walked through the old city of Nablus, all of their printed eyes stared down at us from serious faces. They are the faces of “martyrs”, the ones who have been killed by the Israeli military during night-raids, sniper attacks, and bouts of intensely visual and violent military or settler presence. Next to their pictures are their names, their dates of death, and a few words regarding their lives and premature passing.
At one corner, we stopped next to one with a young man sporting an outdated curly combover, a plaid dress shirt, and a date of death that read May 18th, 1976. It was puzzling to me to see a remembrance tract left for someone who had died almost 40 years before. The group stared intently into his face, at which point the guide asked us “who here has heard of the Graveyard of Numbers”?
The lives of Palestinian people under military occupation are filled with injustice and deceit but nothing exemplifies the complete control and ruthlessness of the Israeli Occupation as what happens to them after death if they qualify to enter the “Graveyard of Numbers”. If a Palestinian from the West Bank is considered to be guilty of a crime by the State of Israel upon their death, the Israeli military can collect that person’s remains and place the individual in a trial post-mortem. After the trial process, a sentence is assigned and the body is taken to a storage facility inside of Israel and held in detention until the sentence is fulfilled.
This man looking down at us was named Hafith Muhammad Wahid Abu Zanat and his corpse was condemned to 20 years in prison. During this time, his family’s rights to burial and/or viewing of his remains were revoked until the 20 year jail period was carried out to term. In 1996, Hafith was returned to his family in Nablus, marking the first time that they were actually able to see him and mourn over his remains since the day that he was shot and his body was initially removed by the military.
Our guide told us that he was present when the Abu Zanat family received their son. His old father stooped over the casket and opened the lid only to find, of course, his son’s bare bones, his recognition long gone with the process of time. Additionally, there was no assurance that these remains even belonged to Hafith.
This is not the kind of homecoming that I would wish on anyone. I see this policy as a way to intentionally prolong familial and community mourning in order to cultivate greater desperation, hopelessness and defeat in other aspects of Palestinian life. For, as long as the remains have not been returned to their family for burial and ceremony, it is essentially as though that person is still alive, still incarcerated, with no control of their life even in death.
Furthermore, the “jail” holding facility purposefully does not catalog the remains that they process by name. It instead estranges the individuals from their identity by assigning them numbers after the court process and immediately stripping them of their name both on paper and in references for the future return to their families, hence the colloquialism the “Graveyard of Numbers”. Thus, when the body is finally returned to the family, the name of the remains is not released along with them. This often necessitates a very expensive DNA test, paid out of pocket by the family members, in order to check if the bones match up with the identity of their loved ones.
This form of arbitrary bureaucracy is ultimately a method of dehumanization and disenfranchisement that aims to remove martyrs’ families from any sort of cohesive healing process.
Incarceration of Palestinian individuals, both living and dead, contributes to the daily obstruction of general civilian movement and control over their basic livelihoods. Such aims are all part of the same network of demoralizing policies that are implemented by the State of Israel to remind the Palestinian people, Zones A, B, and C, that they are not free and will not soon be free.
Even in death, escape requires permission.