On Monday, July 10, twenty-three-year-old Mohammad Ibrahim Jabril allegedly rammed a group of Israeli soldiers near Bethlehem with his car. According to the Israeli army, Jabril exited the vehicle with a knife, tried to attack the soldiers, and was shot dead. Witnesses said that Israeli soldiers prevented Palestinian ambulances from reaching Jabril. An Israeli ambulance later evacuated his body.
Initially, after the shooting, the Israeli army withheld Jabirl’s body from his family. Jabril’s brother was summoned by Israeli intelligence and told that the body would only be returned if there was “quiet—on a security level,” according to Ma’an News. Jabril’s body was eventually released to the family and buried Tuesday evening.
This incident is the latest example of Israel’s policy of withholding the bodies of alleged Palestinian attackers. Israel claims that this practice staves off terrorism and incitement. In reality, however, the policy obscures the often-dubious circumstances that led to the individual’s death.
In October 2015, the Israeli cabinet announced that the state would officially withhold the bodies of alleged Palestinian attackers from their families. Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan stated that the decision was intended to prevent the family of an alleged attacker from turning “his funeral into a demonstration of support for terror and incitement to murder,” according to Haaretz. Since then, the government has held dozens of bodies for weeks or months, at a time. A court case to release the bodies of five slain Palestinians, which have been held for periods ranging from eight to fourteen months, has been stuck in the Israeli Supreme Court for several months now.
Before they return the bodies, Israeli security forces usually make a number of demands on families. To ensure that Palestinians follow these conditions, they sometimes charge families deposits of thousands of dollars. Many of the conditions they impose are often intended to prevent large funerals which, according to Israel, incite violence against Israelis. For example, Israeli officials typically demand bodies be buried discretely and at night, immediately after they are turned over. In Jerusalem, the Israeli Public Security Ministry requires funerals be held outside of the city limits.
As a result of these conditions, Palestinian doctors usually cannot conduct autopsies on the deceased. Because the Israeli government stores the bodies at minus thirty-five-degrees Celsius, they cannot be autopsied unless they thaw for at least forty-eight hours. Given the requirements for a quick burial, this leaves doctors no time to perform these procedures. Sometimes, before they return a body, Israeli officials will make the family explicitly promise not to conduct an autopsy.
The restriction on independent autopsies is significant, as there are persistent concerns about Israel’s unlawful and regular use of deadly force against Palestinians. In September 2016, Amnesty International documented fifteen cases in which Israeli forces purposefully shot and killed Palestinians who posed no threat to human life, “in what appear to be extrajudicial assassinations.” Prominent Israeli military, political, and religious figures have advocated for this shoot-to-kill policy, even though it violates international and domestic Israeli law.
Autopsies would provide evidence as to whether Israeli forces used excessive force or illegal ammunition, like expanding bullets, in confronting suspected Palestinian attackers. They would also provide information about how long it took a particular victim to bleed to death, revealing whether Israeli forces prevented them from receiving potentially life-saving treatment.
By preventing such information from being collected, the Israeli government helps maintain the impunity its soldiers already enjoy when it comes to killing Palestinians. This dubious practice also serves another function. Like Israel’s policy of demolishing the homes of alleged attackers and arresting their family members, withholding bodies is an act of revenge disguised as an anti-terror measure. It is a form of collective punishment that targets mourning families and communities to suppress any resistance to Israel’s military occupation.