Occupied Palestine (In Palestine Today)- Israel subjects Palestinians to a brutal military occupation that inflicts various forms of state sanctioned violence on every sector of society. However, Israel does not only brutalize Palestinians while they are alive. The settler colonial state also engages in necroviolence: a practice of humiliating, desecrating and withholding bodies of dead Palestinians from their families. The Palestinian body is heavily criminalized and treated just as violently dead as they were alive. And in the process, therefore, become sites for Israeli militaristic and colonial practices.
Israel deploys its colonial violence on Palestinian bodies in various ways. In November 2019, then Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, instructed the Israeli military to “completely stop the release of terrorist Palestinian bodies” to family members for religious burial. The policy of withholding of Palestinian bodies can be dated on and off to as early as 1967.
“Terrorist” of course is loosely defined. In June of this year, Mai Afana, 29, was killed by Israeli soldiers near the occupied West Bank village of Himza as she was driving to Ramallah. The Israeli army claims Mai tried to ram into Israeli soldiers with her vehicle, a claim her family completely rejects. The Afana family still have not received Mai’s body nor had a proper burial that would allow them to say their final goodbyes.
In an almost identical story, Ahmed Erekat’s body has also not been released to his family. Ahmed was on his way to his sister’s wedding, when Israeli soldiers shot and killed him claiming he tried to run them over with his car. Yet video footage reveals that Israel’s account of a Palestinian “terror attack” bears no relationship to what actually happened. Forensic investigations found that the collision was more likely an accident. Nonetheless, Israel is still refusing to hand Erekat’s body back to his family for burial.
Israeli authorities have repeatedly adopted a policy of withholding Palestinian bodies that blatantly breaches international and humanitarian law. Articles in the Geneva Convention assure the necessity of burying the bodies of deceased Palestinians and those killed by the Israeli army with respect according to procedures that are appropriate with their religious traditions.
“Where they are is who they are”
According to the Palestinian National Campaign to Retrieve the Bodies of Martyrs, Israel withheld the bodies of 81 Palestinians since 2015. Bodies that have never been returned to Palestinian families are in Israel’s infamous “cemetery of numbers.” These cemeteries are made of mass graves marked with numbers rather than names and are located in closed military zones across Israel.
Israel sees Palestinians, even dead Palestinians, as agents of resistance against the occupation. Although posing no threat to them in death, they aim for their complete humiliation and dehumanization by further refusing to give names to the deceased. They enact collective punishment, using their treatment of the dead as an example to anyone who dare challenges Israel’s apartheid state.
Professor Nadera Shalhoub Kevorkian writes that the “geography where the dead are buried is the primary force shaping this relationship between the Israeli state and the Palestinian dead.” As far as indigenous people are concerned, Kevorkian writes that “where they are is who they are.”
Of course this method of dehumanization is permeated throughout Israeli society. Various federal and social institutions contribute to the blatant act of justifying the killings of Palestinians who are unworthy of due process. Bennett has said that he completely backs the military, “killing of terrorists and collecting their bodies.” On Twitter he said, “this is how it should be done, and this is how it will be done.”
The tweet was in reference to the brutal murder of Mohammed Ali al Naim in Gaza, where a video showed an Israeli bulldozer running over al-Naim’s body and tried several times to pick it up with its blade before taking it back to the Israeli side of the separation fence as the body dangled from the edge of the blade.
In the video, which was projected to the international world, Israel was able to not only desecrate a Palestinian body, but faced no repercussions as they justified it and even promised to treat Palestinian bodies with same level of mercilessness in the future.
A long history
Suhad Nashif presents an ethnographic discovery of the journey of the dead Palestinian body in her book, Historical and Present Day Practices of Forensic Medicine in Palestine. In it, she uncovers how the state institutes a dead body. “For the Palestinian dead body, the social political context is a situation in which boundaries between autonomy and occupation are not clear.”
In criminal proceedings, the body passes through Israeli forensic observation, and if civil, Palestinian. The body undergoes various bureaucratic institutions before it reaches the grave. The Palestinian body is a social agent that state actors use “as a medium for maintaining social order.”
This medium is historical. By 1967, all autopsies of Palestinian bodies were performed at the Israeli National Center of Forensic Medicine (NCFM). Almost all autopsies were conducted by Israeli pathologists, and only a few cases where human rights organizations were allowed to bring in a foreign pathologist. The institute therefore treated Jewish and Palestinian bodies very differently.
Under Israeli law, autopsies require consent from the dead’s family. Yet, when there was any politically motivated cases for a Palestinian body, this rule is disregarded and would usually get support from the Israeli supreme court. During the first Intifada, Palestinian corpses were subject to abuse such as organ harvesting. The Israeli army allowed the NCFM to collect organs from every killed Palestinian using a military regulation that was court ordered to have them undergo a mandatory autopsy.
In her book, Over their Dead Bodies, Meira Weiss writes that “in the first Intifada, organ banks used harvested Palestinian organs for research and teaching medicine. Many of the centre’s workers referred to the first Intifada as the good days when organs were taken constantly and freely.”
As early as the first Intifada, Israel viewed the Palestinian body as unworthy to abide by ethical medical practices. Medical and legal institutions legitimized the oppression of the Palestinian body by using forensic medicine to establish a sense of control over the Palestinian people. They justified their practice by using medicalized language, showing how forensic medicine — at the intersection between medicine and law — criminalized dead Palestinians. They saw, even their corpses, as a source of resistance against Israeli hegemonic power that needed to be humiliated.
In 1993, one of Yasir Arafat’s first decisions as leader of the Palestinian Authority was to establish a forensic medicine institute in the West Bank. The move to establish a Palestinian FMI was intentional. The PA and Arafat understood sovereignty over bodies via the law and medicine was essential in order to have legitimate agency over their people.
Israel, however, aims to establish complete control even in funeral processions as the colonial system seeks to dispossess the spaces of the living and the dead. During the funeral of 12-year-old Mohammed al Alami who was killed by Israeli soldiers while in the backseat of his father’s car, Israeli troops shot and killed Palestinian Shawkat Khalid Awad, 20, who was in attendance.
Israeli soldiers fired tear gas, rubber coated bullets, and stun grenades at Palestinians attending Mohammed’s funeral. Palestinian families make every effort, even when dangerous, to respect the dead- while Israel aims to establish its colonial authority by brutalizing and criminalizing those in attendance. Israel makes it clear, that no Palestinian, even an innocent 12-year-old boy, is worth mourning over.
“Palestinian bodies experience the logic of erasure, as the dead, too, must disappear from the landscape and visibility of the colonizer,” writes Kevorkian. Palestinians remain under the Israeli state’s gaze, “without being recognized as having a right to burial or a right to a peaceful death.”
Necroviolence has become an integral Israeli practice. For a colonizing power, the lines between living and dead are blurred. Respecting Palestinian bodies in death sets a precedent in humanizing their existence when alive — something the Israeli military occupation cannot do if they need to control and dominate their Palestinian subjects.