A peaceful march broke out into clashes on Sunday, after Palestinians gathered in the occupied southern West Bank city of Bethlehem to demand Israeli authorities release the remains of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces to their families for burial.
The Israeli government is refusing to release the bodies of eight Palestinians killed in the last 16 months of upheaval during attempted, alleged, or actual attacks. While 28 bodies had originally been held, the Israeli government has released the remains of the other 20.
The remaining eight are being held on the grounds that the Palestinians were allegedly affiliated with the Hamas movement at the time of their death, a point contested by many family members.
Mohammed Elayyan, the father of Bahaa Elayyan, a Palestinian who was shot dead by Israeli forces in October 2015, told Mondoweiss that while his son’s remains had been released to his family after being held for a year, he continues to come to every action held for other families demanding their loved ones’ remains.
“Today I am here hoping to help the other families who are missing their children’s remains,” Mohammed said. “We are here today to send a message to the whole world that what Israel is doing is a violation of human rights.”
Elayyan was shot dead after he and another Palestinian attacked an Israeli bus with a gun and knife, killing three before both Palestinians were shot dead.
At least 247 Palestinians have been shot dead since October 2015, according to documentation by Ma’an News Agency. During the same period, at least 34 Israelis were killed in Palestinian attacks.
During Sunday’s protest, more than 200 Palestinians gathered on the main stretch of road in Bethlehem, cut off by the Israeli separation wall.
Community leaders, as well as loved-ones of the eight dead still being held by Israeli forces gave speeches along the main road, before protesters gathered to march toward the wall.
Samir al-Khadour, the husband of slain Majd al-Khadour, who was shot dead after she allegedly rammed her car into another vehicle, lightly injuring two Israelis in June, was also at the protest.
Al-Khadour told Mondoweiss Sunday’s protest helped him stay hopeful that he will one day be able to hold a proper funeral for his wife.
“We are in contact with all the Palestinians in the West Bank, from Hebron to Nablus,” he said. “Anywhere there is an action about the martyrs, I feel like there is so much solidarity among us. To see all these people here gives me hope that I will get my wife’s body back one day, because every Palestinian is demanding Israel release the remains of all our martyrs.”
The protest was planned by around 30 community organizers, including Azhar Abu Sahrour, the mother of Abdelhamid Abu Sahour, a 19-year-old student from Aida refugee camp who died while bombing an Israeli bus, which left 21 people injured in April.
While some of the organizers wanted to have the protest deeper into the city, away from the Israeli wall, and in-turn, the Israeli military, Azhar and several other organizers insisted the protest be held in an area near the wall, where Israelis could be confronted, since the message of demanding the bodies be returned was a message for Israeli authorities.
“Israel says it will not return my son’s body because he is accused of being with the Hamas movement,” Abu Sahrour said during the organizational meeting. “But that will never matter to us, as Palestinians we do not make a difference between Fatah or Hamas or any other party or people. We are all here to work together to get all the bodies of all the Palestinians killed by Israel.”
“Israel is trying to find a way to divide the Palestinian population by making a difference between Hamas or Fatah or Ramallah or Hebron because they want us to stop working as a huge team of organized people,” she said. “That is why they are giving back the remains to some families and not to others. But we are all one and we will support each other and stay together and in the end if there is just one Palestinian body left being held we will continue to protest.”
After protesters made it down to the Israeli separation wall, Israeli forces opened the large garage-like gate and several soldiers exited shooting tear gas and scattering protesters.
After Israeli forces shot tear gas at protesters, only youth remained on the streets, who started throwing rocks in retaliation. Israeli jeeps then entered Bethlehem through the gate, speeding through the street and shooting tear gas, rubber-coated steel bullets and sound grenades, after which the protest subsided.
In addition to the eight bodies being held by Israeli forces from the last 16 months of upheaval, it is estimated that Israel is withholding more than 262 more Palestinian bodies, according to Palestinian official numbers, however Israel has stated only 119 remains of Palestinians are being withheld.