Israel’s supreme court on Wednesday, August 18, rejected an appeal by a legal aid group to release the body of Ahmad Erekat. Erekat was shot dead by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint in the occupied West Bank last year. The Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel had filed the appeal on behalf of Mustafa Erekat, Ahmad’s father, asking the court to direct the government to release his son’s body to the family. The court, however, ruled in favor of the Israeli government. Israeli defense regulations allow the military to hold on to bodies of “terrorists or enemy casualties.” This is done for many reasons, including using it as a bargaining chip during future negotiations to release bodies of Israeli soldiers killed by Palestinian resistance groups.
27-year-old Ahmad Erekat was killed on June 23, 2020, while he was on his way to pick up his mother and sister on his sister’s wedding day. He lost control of his car and crashed into an Israeli ‘container’ military checkpoint between Abu Dis and Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. He was reportedly shot six times after getting out of his car with his hands held up. Three of the shots were fired while he was lying down on the ground. He was denied medical aid by the soldiers and left to bleed to death while lying on the ground even though he posed no threat to any of the soldiers. The Israeli military later accused him of being a terrorist and deliberately ramming his car into the checkpoint.
The Israeli accusations against Erekat were later proven false by an investigation conducted by the human rights group Forensic Architecture (FA). The group concluded that his car did not appear to have been speeding and instead could have been braking, contradicting Israel’s claim. Erekat’s family has been steadfast in saying that he could have never perpetrated such an attack.
Israel’s policy of withholding the bodies of Palestinians killed has been criticized by activists, human rights groups, and the international community, including the United Nations. The UN urged Israel in 2016 to “take all necessary steps to return bodies to families for burial as soon as possible.” Not only is it a war crime as per the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), but it also violates international human rights and humanitarian law. The policy also violates International Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, to which Israel is a signatory.
Israel temporarily stopped the use of this policy in 2004 but resumed it in 2015. According to the Palestinian National Campaign to Retrieve the Bodies of Martyrs, since 2015, Israel has had custody of the bodies of 81 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces. 11 out of the 81 bodies are those confiscated in May-June this year during widespread protests against Israeli violence in the occupied Palestinian territories. In the past, this policy was used for only the bodies of the Palestinian resistance group, Hamas, or those accused of deadly attacks. But in September 2020, the Israeli government revised the policy to apply to bodies of Palestinians “unrelated to organizational affiliation,” enabling the authorities to withhold the bodies of any Palestinian killed by security forces.
Following the court’s decision, the Adalah Center, in a statement, said that it “gives a free hand to the military, without governmental authority, and retroactively approves such illegal practice. Israel must immediately return the dozens of Palestinian bodies it currently holds.” The lawyers from Adalah representing the Erekat family, Sawsan Zaher and Hassan Jabareen, also denounced the court’s decision.