For the past two years Azhar Abu Srour has played the last weeks of her son Abed’s life over and over in her head, unable to find closure as she waits for Israeli authorities to release her son’s remains. Her then 19-year-old son died a year and a half ago, after detonating a bomb on an Israel bus, killing himself and injuring 20 Israelis.
Azhar, along with the families of five other Palestinians killed during actual or alleged attacks against Israelis, brought a case in demand of their family members remains to court, hoping Israel’s justice system could help them give their loved ones a proper burial.
However last week, days before the families’ next court date had been set, Azhar got the news from a fellow parent that four of the six remains being fought over in the case had been moved to Israel’s “Cemetery of Numbers,” where Palestinians are buried by Israeli authorities with only numbers marking their graves.
The news came as a shock to the families involved in the case, who were expecting time for a ruling to be decided before authorities made such a move.
It is estimated that around 249 Palestinian bodies are being held in such graves — though some estimates are much higher — leaving hundreds of families without the closure a burial could grant.
Israeli authorities have been inconsistently using the practice of holding Palestinians bodies since 1967, though the practice, which has been criticized by various Israeli institutions and officials, has been halted and renewed several times throughout the years.
In general, three reasons are given as to why Israeli authorities insist on not handing over the remains. Bodies are either withheld as punishment, an attempt at deterring future attacks, or as leverage in negotiations and potential prisoners exchanges — particularly with the Hamas movement in Gaza, where at least two Israeli civilians are being held.
“They have more than two hundred bodies buried in the Cemetery of Numbers, and 7,000 Palestinian prisoners. They think holding the bodies will give them leverage for negotiations, but it doesn’t make sense. They have so much to use against us as leverage they don’t need our children’s bodies,” Azhar said, following a march in protest of the news.
In a 2016 article, Haaretz reported that Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman “thoroughly opposed the handing over of bodies,” reportedly saying in a closed meeting that he believed withholding Palestinian remains would act as a deterrent for future attacks.
During the same meeting, a representative of the Israeli army, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, the army’s Operations Directorate head, called for the practice to end, saying that in the army’s opinion, withholding Palestinian remains increases tensions and doesn’t deter potential attacks. In fact, Alon said the opinion of the Israeli army is that withholding remain could have the opposite effect, leading to more attacks.
As far as deterring attacks, Azhar said simply looking back at history shows the method is flawed.
“They’ve been holding bodies for so long, most of them are from the beginning of the First Intifada, a lot of bodies are being withheld from that period, and what has it done? What has happened?” she asked. “If someone wants to go to die, if they have something in their mind that is pushing them to make some sort of attack, do you really think that person is at all worried about their body?”
Living without closure
Since it was made clear that Israeli authorities planned on keeping her son’s body, Azhar became dedicated to the movement of activists demanding the release of slain Palestinians’ remains.
Azhar has become a leader in the movement, which focuses on grassroots non-violent protests as well as litigation, as families hope their efforts in court will grant them the bodies of their loved ones.
However, while the court case for Azhar and the five other families is ongoing, Israeli authorities last week went outside of the parameters of the case by burying four bodies in the Cemetery of Numbers before a court could rule for or against returning the remains.
Even so, Azhar and the five other families involved in the case will continue fighting the battle in court — postponement after postponement.
Akram Atallah of the Palestinian Authority’s Detainees and Ex-Detainees Affairs Commission told Mondoweiss he did not have any new information about the schedule for the next court date, but stressed that they would not give up until the remains were returned.
“Palestinians who are or would have been sentenced to life and die in custody are held even after death,” Atallah said. “Israel punishes you even after you die.”
Over the summer protests in demand of the remains had lost a bit of momentum, as other causes in the Palestinian political sphere took center stage, and the families of the slain instead focused on litigation. But Azhar’s dedication to the street-movement has been renewed by a vivid dream she had a few weeks ago.
The night before her oldest daughter started her first day of her senior year, Azhar said she woke up overcome with emotion — she had just hugged her dead son in her sleep, she explained, telling a story that offered an insight into the relationship she and her son had before his passing.
“When my son was alive a few years ago I had a surgery, doctors had to remove my appendix, and gave it to me after the surgery. My son refused to let me throw it away, he said we had to had to bury it,” she recalled. “A few weeks ago I dreamed my son was here and he hugged me, and after the hug I went to pick some flowers from our garden and in my dream I went to the same place where he had buried it — that morning I knew I could not give up.
“When he was alive my son told me ‘I could never throw away just a small part of your body, this is part of you, I must bury it with respect,’ and he did,” she said. “So I cannot give up on him now.”
While Azhar has gone back to work as a teacher at a girls’ school in Bethlehem city, she still wears black exclusively, a testament to her mourning.
“The principal at my school asked me to stop, she said it was time for me to move on from that part of the grieving process, but I cannot, I never got to say goodbye to my son,” she said.
Sometime Azhar said she questions whether her son is really dead or not. Her husband was brought to the hospital after the attack to identify the body, but the charred remains were so disfigured the identification process was pointless. The family has asked for a DNA test to be made, but the request was rejected as far as they know. Most of the time Azhar accepts that her son has passed, but there are times when a sliver of hope remains. Having his body, doing the test and laying him to rest would help bring her mind to ease, she explained.
“When we get his body back, it will feel like a victory,” Azhar said. “It will be sad. Of course it will be sad. But it will feel good to give him his last rites. He deserves that.”