According to Jewish law, the deceased should be buried within 24 hours of passing and must be buried as he was born – complete with all his limbs and organs. According to Kabbalah, when a body is not given a proper burial, the deceased’s soul “remains in turmoil and cannot find rest.” At the human level, this also allows for closure for the families of the deceased; it gives them comfort that their loved ones are resting calmly in the earth according to their religious traditions.
This tradition came to mind last week when the remains of 91 Palestinians killed by the Israeli army or in operations against Israel were returned to the Palestinian Authority in what Israel called a ‘gesture’ towards President Mahmoud Abbas. Some of the Palestinian fighters –” interred in the so-called cemetery of numbers –” died as far back as 1976. Over 370 other bodies are still held by Israel.
What about these men and women’s souls? The images of bereaved families kissing makeshift coffins draped in Palestinian flags, or even more haunting, the image of an elderly Palestinian kissing the bare skull of his son, were heartbreaking and chilling all at once. What Israel called a ‘gesture’ is really a blatant violation of humanitarian and religious rights. Every person has the right to a dignified and proper burial and every family has the right to bury their loved ones.
Needless to say, the return of the bodies was a bittersweet homecoming. For one, the wounds of families waiting for their loved ones were reopened by the sight of the remains. But at the same time the families were filled with a sense of relief that their sons and daughters could finally be put to rest in their own hometowns and according to their own religious and cultural rights. For years, they were numbers, anonymous bodies buried carelessly in a plot of land controlled by their occupier, the very enemy they died fighting against. No doubt, the families feared for the souls of their loved ones laying in limbo as hostages to Israel.
This sense of closure is an integral part of healing, and for Israel, it is an effective part of breaking the spirit of the Palestinians. Jews understand the importance of closure more than anyone. That is why they ensure that all the body parts are present before burial and the body is laid to rest quickly and in line with Jewish tradition. When Israel holds the bodies of Palestinian ‘martyrs’, men and women who die for the cause of Palestine, it knows that this will break the families and wound the spirits of mothers and fathers who want nothing more than to bid their children a final farewell and allow them to rest in peace. Israel uses even bodies as bargaining chips and returns them when they can hold it over the Palestinians’ heads as a ‘good will gesture’. There is nothing ‘good willed’ about it because this is a right that every human being should have –” to be buried properly and respectfully.
Until last week, not many people were aware of the hundreds of Palestinian bodies being held by Israel in these unmarked cemeteries. Now, however, after seeing the ceremonies offered to these ‘martyrs of Palestine’, the 21-gun salute at the presidential headquarters in Ramallah and the bereaved families weeping over the loss of their children but also in joy that they can finally take them home –” all of this is a reminder that Israel works at a multitude of levels to break the Palestinians.
Thankfully, it has not worked so far, even though the wounds run deep. It is cruel to withhold the body of someone’s son or daughter from their family. It is cruel to put them in a grave marked only with a number and prevent anyone from bidding them farewell. It is long overdue that these fallen Palestinians be given the proper and dignified burials they deserve. May they finally be able to rest in peace.