Israeli authorities announced on Sunday evening that Israeli forces recovered the bodies of five missing Palestinians who had been trapped, without access to rescue crews, in a tunnel bombed by Israeli forces on Oct. 30.
A total of 12 Gazans were killed, and 12 more injured in this most recent attack on Gaza’s tunnel infrastructure.
Official Palestinian medical crews attempted to get permission to safely enter Israel’s “buffer zone,” in Gaza in order to try and rescue the five who were reported missing in the bombing, but were unable to get permission to enter. The “buffer zone” is a 300 meter area stretching along the Gaza side of the Israeli-Gaza border, which routinely comes under Israeli military fire and is prohibited to Palestinians.
While the Islamic Jihad movement, of which some of the dead were associated with, announced the death of the first five two days after the bombing, there was still standing hope that some of the people in the tunnel could have been alive, since no remains had been unearthed. Hamas and the Islamic Jihad initially sent in an unofficial rescue crew, local media reported, but the team was killed in a second explosion of the tunnel, which brought the death toll to 12.
After the bombing Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, and the Gaza-based Al Mezan Center for Human Rights initially filed a petition demanding official Palestinian emergency responders be allowed to carry out a rescue mission in the buffer zone. The petition was filed with the Israeli Supreme Court on Nov. 2 on behalf of Hassan Abdel Jalil Sbahi, the father of one of the then-missing people in the tunnel.
While Adalah Attorney Muna Haddad wrote in the Supreme Court petition that an urgent hearing should have been held, as “people’s lives are at stake,” the petition for the emergency rescue was left unanswered for four days. Only on Sunday, when Israeli forces announced five dead bodies had been recovered from the rubble, did Adalah and Al Mezan withdraw the request.
Haddad said preventing rescue crews from entering the bombed area when people were known to be trapped in rubble, could constitute a war crime.
“Preventing the location and rescue of missing persons in the area currently under Israeli military control is a blatantly illegal policy,” which he said is “contrary to the laws of war and humanitarian law which are anchored in the Geneva Conventions.”
The Gaza Strip has been under siege by both Israel and Egypt since 2007, when the Hamas movement won Palestinian elections. With Israel controlling even its maritime borders, tunneling underground from the Gaza Strip to Egypt and Israel are one of the main avenues for the movement of goods, both for household products, electronics and everyday needs, as well as weapons for the Hamas government’s armed wing.
Both Israel and Egypt consistently bomb and disrupt the illegal tunnel network, killing scores of civilian workers and political fighters in the process.
Now that the five missing Gazan’s have been announced dead, Adalah is concerned Israeli authorities may attempt to withhold the bodies of the five as leverage.
In a statement announcing the withdrawal of the group’s petition, Adalah stated “The holding of bodies contradicts the principles of international humanitarian law. Bodies of individuals who are killed during situations of conflict must be returned to their families for burial with dignity. international humanitarian law prohibits using bodies for political purposes or as bargaining chips.”
Israel has not announced whether the five bodies will be returned to their families, but the Israeli government routinely withholds the bodies of Palestinians affiliated with the Hamas organization.
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.