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Treatment of enemy corpses is vindictive.

Death and burial rituals are central to all cultures. Often we hear of a country exerting enormous effort in order to retrieve corpses of soldiers felled in battle. But while exalting the bodies of their own soldiers, some governments abuse enemy corpses and attempt to hide this dark conduct from the public eye.

The Israeli rights organization, HaMoked, learned of Israel's policy toward enemy corpses when Alia Abirijeh, a 74 year-old Palestinian residing in Jordan approached the organization, inquiring about her son Issa. He had run away from home when he was 16, Abirijeh told HaMoked's director Dalia Kerstein. Abirijeh added that a couple of years later a Palestinian organization in Lebanon informed her that Issa had been killed in a clash with the Israeli military.

Abirijeh had traveled from Jordan to Israel, hoping to recover the corpse and bring it back to the family gravesite. Following the mother's appeal, HaMoked began searching. "We petitioned the High Court of Justice, asking it to order the state to disclose Issa's whereabouts," Kerstein says. Only then did the state admit that Issa had been killed in Lebanon and had been buried in plot 245 in a cemetery for dead enemies.

"We then requested a DNA test to confirm that the corpse was indeed Issa's," Kerstein continues. She said that Attorney Rosenthal from HaMoked was present when the body was removed. In his affidavit to the High Court, Rosenthal stated: "A bulldozer opened grave number 246. The body was buried at a depth of around 50 centimeters. The jaw protruded from the plastic sack containing the body. The bulldozer turned to plot 245. There were two bodies in the plot. The bulldozer turned to grave 244 to check if it was empty, and it was."

The DNA results suggest that neither of the bodies buried in plot 245 nor the body from the adjacent plot was Issa's. While Issa's whereabouts continue to be a mystery, his story led HaMoked and B'Tselem, another Israeli rights organization, to investigate this lesser-known aspect of Israel's policy: its treatment of enemy corpses. In their recently published report, "Captive Corpses," the two organizations claim that enemy bodies are not only buried in a demeaning and shameful manner, but that Israel refuses to return bodies to the bereaved families.

Neither the maltreatment of bodies nor refusal to grant permission to hold a funeral is a novel phenomenon. We often read about it in the Bible. For instance, when Rechab and Baanah murder an innocent man, David orders his soldiers to kill the two, cut of their hands and feet, and hang their bodies in the air. In Plato's Laws, death is not always a sufficient penalty. At times the people are called to strip the corpse, stone it and leave it unburied outside the city's walls.

What, one might ask, is the rationale behind these punishments? After all, the crime's perpetrator is already dead.

Michel Foucault, who spent many years analyzing punishment practices, maintains that until the mid-18th century reprisal against bodies was administered according to a clear logic informed by the equation between state and sovereign. He explains that besides its immediate victim -- for instance, a murdered citizen -- the crime attacks the sovereign: "It attacks him personally, since the law represents the will of the sovereign; it attacks him physically since the force of law is the force of the prince." Punishment, Foucault concludes, required redress for the injury that has been done to the kingdom itself, including revenge for an affront to the king's very person. The aim was to re-establish the "dissymmetry between the subject who has dared to violate the law and the all-powerful sovereign who displays his strength."

Whereas Foucault claims that during the enlightenment this kind of rationale was surpassed, I think it still informs many government policies, only now the "nation" has replaced the "sovereign." Israel's treatment of enemy corpses is a case in point. In 1994, after a series of suicide bombings, a consistent policy was established under which Israel would not hand over bodies except in extremely rare cases. The reason leading to this abrupt policy change is revealing.

While the Palestinians who attack Israeli citizens using guns and grenades can be killed or imprisoned by the Israeli security forces, the suicide bombers take all agency into their own hands and thus eliminate Israel's ability to punish them. But, according to the preenlightenment logic, the sovereign must continue to affirm its superiority against the violator, it must respond to the transgression with vengeance. Since the bomber is dead, mistreating the body and keeping it hostage is the only means available.

While I readily condemn the heinous acts committed by the suicide bombers, Israel's treatment of enemy corpses exposes an atavistic policy informed by vindictiveness instead of justice. Privileging nationalistic sentiments over democratic practice has led Israel to punish people -- the perpetrator's bereaved family -- who are neither guilty nor even suspect. Not unlike other measures Israel takes, such as demolition of homes, holding corpses hostage constitutes collective punishment of innocent persons. This punishment, HaMoked and B'tselem conclude, is immoral and contravenes international law. I would also add that the logic informing it threatens Israeli democracy.

Neve Gordon teaches in the Department of Politics and Government at Ben Gurion University in Israel and can be reached at
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:Oct 8, 1999
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