Ramallah, Asharq Al-Awsat- “Even if it is only my daughter’s finger, I want it here… I want to pray for her. Every bone is my right and the right of every Palestinian,” said Mohammed al Akhras. These words were spoken by the father of Ayat al Akras whose body is being held by the Israeli army in a cemetery known as the ‘Cemetery of Numbers’.
This cemetery acquired its name by virtue of the fact that all the graves only have numbers inscribed on metal plates. The numbers signify the identity of buried people since no one knows who they are except for the Israeli army.
Since Ayat al Akhras detonated herself in a Jerusalem market in 2002, her father has been yearning to be reunited with her. He told Asharq Al-Awsat that he will never forget and that his wound will not heal until he has buried his daughter with his own hands near him so that he may rest assured that she is safe. “I will not feel better until I can hug my daughter, even if she is only bones,” he said.
Like al Akhras, dozens of families of Palestinian ‘martyrs’ are waiting to be reunited with the bodies of their children; irrespective of their state or whether only some parts or bones remain of them. To this day, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Human rights organizations and even the Red Cross do not possess accurate information or figures pertaining to the ‘Cemetery of Graves’ and have no knowledge of its exact location or of the number or nationalities of the people buried in it.
Eissa Qarqaa, the official in charge of the Prisoners of War Committee in the PA told Asharq Al-Awsat, “The number of cemeteries is unknown, only four have been identified, however no one can guess the number of martyred prisoners buried in these cemeteries.”
Qarqaa, who is actively involved and is following up on the news about the cemetery, estimates hundreds, he said, “the occupation has detained martyrs since 1967 and they bury them in unknown and open graves.” Some of these graves have been removed because they were dug too shallow and Palestinian researchers have previously spoken of the deterioration of these graves.
“They are burying our martyrs, males and females, without a shred of morality and I do not rule out the possibility of corpses being piled up one on top of the other or that a male and female are buried together in the same grave,” said Qarqaa. He added: “this is inhuman and unethical and it goes against religion. They use numbers in place of names and no legal or humanitarian action is being taken.”
According to a Palestinian researcher, the four graves that have been recently discovered lie within the 1948 territory; they are the Banat Yacoub Bridge Cemetery which is located in a military zone at the point at which the Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian borders meet. It contains the remains of hundreds of bodies of the Palestinian and Lebanese victims who were killed in the 1982 war and later, approximately 500 graves. The Bir al Maksur (aka Jisr Damia) grave lies in a closed military zone between Jericho and the Jordan Valley and it is surrounded by an iron gate on which a big sign in Hebrew says: “Cemetery for the Enemy’s Victims”. This cemetery has approximately 100 graves. The other two are Revidim Cemetery in the Jordan Valley and Shahita Cemetery, which lies in Wadi Hammam village.
The Israeli army has forced the residents of a neighboring village to dig up the bodies of two ‘martyrs’ without disclosing who they were. Abdel Nasser Farawana, researcher and the Director of the Bureau of Statistics at the Palestinian Ministry of Prisoners’ Affairs told Asharq Al-Awsat that, “the policy of detaining the bodies of martyrs has become a fundamental part of Israeli dealings with the Palestinians and Arabs. It is the only policy that punishes human beings after their death by storing them in fridges for years on end or burying them in mass graves in number cemeteries.”
According to a study conducted by Farawana, which Asharq Al-Awsat has received, the detained bodies do not simply belong to those who carried out operations against Israel or those that fell during armed confrontations but also those who have been killed by the Israeli forces and those who had been assassinated by its special unit, in addition to those who had died in Israeli prisons. Add to that the corpses stored in fridges or in secret cemeteries in undisclosed locations or closed military zones where family and friends cannot go to visit or even take pictures. These areas are controlled by the [Israeli] army and Defense Ministry. The study also refers to the cold-blooded manner by which the dead were piled on top each other and the absence of names to identify them.
Farawana affirmed, “Israel has resorted to a number of pretexts to justify the detention of the bodies; once it said that it would continue to detain them until the end of its identification process, another time it claimed that it needed to examine them; however, all these allegations are false because screening and identification does not take several years.”
“For example,” Farawana discloses, “the bodies of the martyrs Mohammed Farawana and Hamid al Rantissi who were martyred in the operation “End of Illusion” [are still detained] and their release is linked to the release of the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.”
According to the study, there is a close-link between Israel’s secret prisons and the number cemeteries and that the hundreds of Palestinian prisoners of war and the Arabs who have disappeared years ago and have been considered missing are either in these secret prisons or are dead and kept in refrigerators or buried in mass unknown graves.
Despite the passage of six years since Ayat al Akhras executed the operation in Israel, her father still has hope to be reunited with his daughter and he has left no stone unturned looking for her. At the time he was interviewed by Asharq Al-Awsat, he had already been to see dozens of human rights institutions; Palestinian, Israeli and international. He stated that “no one had been able to provide any information.” He added that “even the Knesset has expressed concern for my daughter’s case and they followed up with the Ministry of Defense but couldn’t get any answers.”
Ayat’s father largely blames the Palestinian Authority (PA) whom he stated did not lift a finger or even call for the resolution of the case, he said. “They only ask for the prisoners that remain alive – but we want the martyred prisoners.” However, after a long pause he said: “It [the PA] too is a prisoner of the occupation. Everyone is a prisoner.”
Qarqaa also agrees that the PA has not done enough to follow up on the issue and form a legal committee to try Israel; however, he also blames Arab countries since Israel has detained bodies belonging to other Arab nationals. He called for an international committee to try Israel for the war crimes it has committed and added, “This violates the international humanitarian law which considers the forced disappearance of prisoners to be a war crime.”
The families of the “martyred prisoners,” as the Palestinians like to call them, believe that their sons and daughters are susceptible to being attacked or eaten by stray dogs, beasts or birds in their unknown graves. According to reports, the Israeli army is believed to bury them in holes that are no deeper than 60cm after being concealed in a cover that bears the Israeli Ministry of Health emblem, or are stashed in black plastic bags without leaving any space between the earth and the bodies.
Records from the Friends of Detainees and Prisoners Society in Nazareth, which is entitled with the gathering of information from the residents of nearby villages and from the shepherds that herd their sheep around the areas are looking into the possible locations of the number cemeteries, or where they are believed to be. One source revealed that in 1982, he had seen Israeli soldiers burying hundreds of the dead and wounded who were buried alive alongside with the dead in mass graves in the Banat Yacoub Bridge Cemetery.
According to the society, a resident of Wadi Hammam village said that the Israeli army had used a part of the village cemetery to bury the “martyrs who carried out military operations from 1970-1977.”
An old man said that he had buried 16 fighters from Fatah who had fallen in the battle of Ein Baida in 1970, in addition to a Syrian woman that the Israeli troops had killed when she got lost picking herbs in the Golan Heights in 1975. The Palestinians also fear that the organs of their deceased are being stolen and used to treat Israelis. The sanctity of the dead does not allow the Palestinian families to verify if indeed their children’s organs are intact.
Asharq Al-Awsat has seen pictures of the Palestinian dead sewn back together in a manner that suggests that their bodies were cross dissected. Moreover, some families whose children had fallen in the first Intifada (1987-1992) report receiving the bodies of their children without eyes or with missing internal organs. However, this was not documented in a way that could condemn the occupation since the Palestinians forbid the tampering with bodies based on religious considerations.
In 2003, the ‘martyr’ Mohammed Zuhair Salem’s mother told reporters in Gaza after Hezbollah’s deal with Israel, “Return his arm or leg or any part of his body back to me; I want to pray for him and greet him and bury him near me. I know that his body must have decomposed or maybe he has been eaten by beasts but I still want to visit him in a grave nearby and hug the earth that covers him.”
Um Faisal cried bitterly during her interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, her son Khamis Jirwan died during an operation in 2003. Although she says she knows her son is in heaven, Um Faisal said that she would not rest in peace until her son’s body is returned to her so that she could give him a proper burial. “I miss my son,” she said. Khamis Jirwan’s father added that all attempts to bring back his son had failed miserably and that he had reached the point where he was begging them for any piece.
The deal with Hezbollah through which dozens of corpses belonging to Palestinians and Arabs were exchanged opened up a deep wound for the Palestinians. Al Akras said, “I will be waiting for my daughter and if they do not release her this time then I will wait for my other daughter.” [Dalal Mughrabi. Her body was slated to be released to Hezbollah as part of the agreement].
Dalal Mughrabi has been revived once again into a Palestinian symbol throughout the Palestinian territories like a phoenix that rises from the ashes. Fatah movement, to which Dalal had been affiliated, began to prepare solemn funerary processions for Dalal and her companions throughout all the Palestinian cities and called upon the PA to hold proper burials for the Palestinian ‘martyrs’ in Ramallah. At a time when the Palestinians celebrate the liberation of Dalal, ‘Yediot Ahronot’s’ Roni Shaked wrote, “Dalal Mughrabi is on her way to freedom.”
On the morning of March 11, 1978, Dalal Mughrabi and her Palestinian Fedayeen unit (11 members including another woman) arrived by Zodiac boats on a beach near Ma’agan Michael north of Tel Aviv, having departed from Lebanon. They killed American photographer Gail Rubin and hijacked a bus on the coastal highway.
The Fadayeen opened fire but were soon being pursued by an Israeli army unit headed by Ehud Barak. The Israeli unit was finally able to stop the bus near Herzliya and after a long shooting battle, Mughrabi blew up the bus. Thirty six civilians were killed in this attack, 13 of which were children and reportedly six Palestinian guerillas were killed. There is documented photographic evidence of Barak mutilating the body of the dead Palestinian woman and dragging her by the hair behind him.
It remains to be seen whether the scores of bodies and remains of Palestinians will be returned to their homeland to reunite with their families and so that they may have proper burials.