Every year on the 27th of August, Palestinian families and human rights defenders mark the National Day for the Recovery of Palestinian and other Arab War Victims’ Bodies and the Disclosure of the Fate of the Missing. This annual observance serves to expose not only Israel’s policy of withholding Palestinian bodies for leverage in negotiations but also the inhumane detention conditions and systematic medical negligence endured by Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli custody. According to information obtained by Al Mezan, the bodies of seven Palestinian detainees that died in Israeli prisons and detention facilities are among the hundreds being held.
In addition to Israeli prisons being a high-risk environment for mass outbreaks of contagious diseases, Palestinian inmates also report systematic torture and ill-treatment, overcrowding, and lack of access to essential drugs and adequate medical care, making them subject to increased health risks and death in custody.
Reporting on Israel’s pervasive policy of medical negligence, a Palestinian inmate who has been serving a life sentence in Israel’s Ramon prison since 2005, told Al Mezan:
When I was arrested and detained, I was a healthy 26-year-old young man. Six years ago, however, I was diagnosed with a hepatitis virus. There is no treatment course for me, as I was told by the prison’s clinic. Since then, I have suffered from a heart attack and had two coronary stents placed. My health deteriorated again almost a year ago. The prison’s doctor told me that one of my heart valves was not functioning well and that I needed immediate surgical intervention. I have communicated my medical needs to the prison’s administration multiple times throughout the past year, but to no avail. I have immense pain in my chest, along with excessive sweating and inability to move.
The Israeli authorities also refuse to disclose the names of deceased Palestinians in their custody, or any information related to their whereabouts, let alone carry out forensic assessment or issue death certificates for the deceased, violating the Fourth Geneva Convention. The Israeli authorities may on rare occasion return a body with specific conditions for burial, which humiliates and degrades families attempting to bury their loved ones in dignity.
Several Israeli laws and decisions have put in place the domestic legal conditions to withhold the bodies of slain Palestinians. In January 2017, the Israeli Security Cabinet issued an explicit decision on the “uniform policy for the treatment of terrorist bodies,” followed by a September 2019 High Court decision on withholding and temporarily burying bodies to be used as bargaining chips, and most recently, in a split decision of 2-to-1, the High Court determined that the Israeli military has the authority to withhold bodies without governmental authority. These decisions do not comport with international law, and in June 2016, the UN Committee Against Torture called on Israel to take all necessary steps to return bodies to families for burial as soon as possible.
Since 2015, the bodies of 325 Palestinians have been withheld by Israel, with 26 bodies being of Palestinians from Gaza.
Al Mezan strongly condemns Israel’s routine violation of Palestinian rights and stresses that its policy of withholding Palestinian bodies for use as leverage in political negotiations is an inhumane act that violates international legal standards and should be investigated by the International Criminal Court.
Al Mezan calls on the international community, in particular the High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Convention, to uphold its obligations toward the protected persons in the occupied Palestinian territory. Firm and swift action must be taken to pressure Israel into returning Palestinian bodies, including those who have died in Israeli prisons and detention centers, for burial in accordance with the families’ culture and religious beliefs.