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How the dead serve as bargaining chips in the Israel-Hamas conflict

Issam Aruri, a Palestinian who runs the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, works on cases where Israel is holding the bodies of Palestinians who died while attacking Israel. Both Israel and Hamas hold the bodies of the dead from the other side to use as leverage in negotiations.
Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Issam Aruri, a Palestinian who runs the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center, works on cases where Israel is holding the bodies of Palestinians who died while attacking Israel. Both Israel and Hamas hold the bodies of the dead from the other side to use as leverage in negotiations.

TEL AVIV, Israel — Hamas is holding Israeli hostages. Israel is holding Hamas militants. On both sides, many of those captives are dead.

In the current Israel-Hamas war and in previous conflicts, both sides have adopted a policy of keeping the dead bodies of their enemies, often for years, so they can be used as bargaining chips.

"The basic assumption in Israel is that Hamas will hold on to hostages, living or dead, as an insurance policy," says Gershon Baskin, an Israeli who has worked as a hostage negotiator. He has served as a go-between for the Israeli government and Hamas — which don't talk to each other.

Israel also has a tradition of withholding Palestinian bodies, says Issam Aruri, a Palestinian who runs the Jerusalem Legal Aid and Human Rights Center.

"Sometimes we feel it is arbitrary," Aruri says in an interview at his office in the West Bank city of Ramallah. "If Israel feels that this guy is of value for Hamas, that they may pay a price for him or her, Israel will keep the body for sure."

His group has worked on this issue for years, filing multiple court cases seeking the release of Palestinian bodies. It has put together an 83-page booklet on this practice of withholding the dead as bargaining chips. The group even has a name for it: "necropolitics."

Rallying for a return of all hostages, living and dead

A large plaza in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art is now known as Hostage Square. The encampment has become a round-the-clock gathering point for those seeking the return of Israelis seized by Hamas in the group's Oct. 7 attack on southern Israel.

Udi Goren is one of the leaders among the Israeli families seeking to win the release of hostages held by Hamas. Goren's cousin Tal Chaimi was killed in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, and his body was taken to Gaza. "Tal is still a hostage — only he's coming back in a coffin," says Goren.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Udi Goren is one of the leaders among the Israeli families seeking to win the release of hostages held by Hamas. Goren's cousin Tal Chaimi was killed in the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, and his body was taken to Gaza. "Tal is still a hostage — only he's coming back in a coffin," says Goren.

Israel says that Hamas is still holding more than 130 hostages in Gaza and that at least 31 of them are dead, probably more.

Israel tries to determine who's alive and who isn't in multiple ways. Israel's security forces debrief hostages who've been released, asking whom they saw alive. Israel also analyzes injuries suffered by those who were taken captive, trying to determine who likely survived and who didn't.

It's a painfully slow process, says Udi Goren, 42, who has become one of the leaders of the hostage families that are lobbying the government to make a deal to win the hostages' release.

Sitting in the shade on the edge of Hostage Square, Goren recounts how his cousin Tal Chaimi, 41, tried to defend the kibbutz where he had spent his whole life. He vanished in the Oct. 7 attack, and the family was unsure of his fate.

"It took two months until the army gave us confirmation that they could identify for sure some of his remains," says Goren, adding that his cousin left behind a pregnant wife and three children. "So now Tal is still a hostage — only he's coming back in a coffin."

Meanwhile, Israel has said that its military has killed about 1,000 Hamas militants who stormed into southern Israel and slaughtered 1,200 civilians on Oct. 7.

An armed Israeli man takes a photograph of a woman posing in front of a mock Hamas tunnel in what's known as Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, a round-the-clock encampment for those seeking the return of Israelis held by Hamas in Gaza.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
An armed Israeli man takes a photograph of a woman posing in front of a mock Hamas tunnel in what's known as Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, a round-the-clock encampment for those seeking the return of Israelis held by Hamas in Gaza.

The Israeli military declined to provide details such as where those Palestinian remains are being kept or when they might be sent back to Gaza.

In a temporary cease-fire last November, Hamas released more than 100 Israeli hostages, and the Israelis freed some 240 Palestinian prisoners.

Israel and Hamas are now trying to negotiate another truce with additional releases by both sides. But it's proving to be a protracted process, and the living are likely to be set free before the dead are exchanged.

Digging up bodies in Gaza

Meanwhile, Israel is also trying to get its dead back on its own.

According to Israeli media, the military has collected 350 bodies in Gaza since launching a ground invasion last October. Many were dug up in Palestinian cemeteries, and all were brought to Israel.

The bodies are examined at forensic labs in Israel to determine whether any are the dead Israeli hostages. So far, no hostage has been identified.

Israel has subsequently returned some of those bodies to Gaza, wrapped in blue shrouds for Palestinians to rebury.

Anas Baba, NPR's producer in the Gaza Strip, witnessed a truck delivering the bodies for reburial last month in southern Gaza.

"I was wearing a face mask. But the smell was beyond any description. Eighty bodies, some of which had decomposed," says Baba.

At the scene, he spoke with Palestinians looking for loved ones.

"I saw a grieving father. He was wishing for only one thing: finding his son, so that the father could be relieved of the torment of losing his son," Baba says.

Israel says the dead hostages held by Hamas include two Israeli soldiers killed in Gaza in 2014, during a previous round of fighting.

Baskin, the hostage negotiator, has tried many times to get those two Israeli bodies back.

Sheep graze outside one of Israel's "cemeteries of numbers," in the Jordan Valley, one of several cemeteries holding Palestinians who died during attacks against Israel over the past several decades. The cemetery itself is a closed military area.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Sheep graze outside one of Israel's "cemeteries of numbers," in the Jordan Valley, one of several cemeteries holding Palestinians who died during attacks against Israel over the past several decades. The cemetery itself is a closed military area.

"Israel has held up to hundreds of Palestinian bodies over the years and tried to negotiate," says Baskin. "Initially, the Israeli plan was bodies for bodies. And Hamas never took that bait. They were never interested in it."

Baskin asked Hamas why it rejected a lopsided exchange in its favor.

"They said to me, 'According to our faith, their souls are already in paradise. They're already in heaven. It doesn't matter where there remains are — they're buried,'" he recalls.

Also, Baskin explains, Hamas considers all of Israel to be part of historical Palestine. Therefore, he says, "wherever they are buried on the land, it's Palestine. It's not like they're buried in a foreign country, which is how Israel relates to soldiers who are in Gaza."

Israeli soldiers exhume the bodies of Lebanese fighters from one of Israel's "cemeteries of numbers." Israel has built several cemeteries for enemy dead. Israel often holds the bodies for years, eventually exchanging them for Israeli dead. In this 2004 photo from northern Israel, the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Israel are shown exchanging both living captives and the remains of the dead.
David Silverman / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Israeli soldiers exhume the bodies of Lebanese fighters from one of Israel's "cemeteries of numbers." Israel has built several cemeteries for enemy dead. Israel often holds the bodies for years, eventually exchanging them for Israeli dead. In this 2004 photo from northern Israel, the Lebanese group Hezbollah and Israel are shown exchanging both living captives and the remains of the dead.

The "cemeteries of numbers"

Standoffs like this date back several decades. Israel has built several cemeteries exclusively for Palestinians and other Arab militants who died during attacks against Israel.

The simple gravesites do not have names on them — just numbers. Palestinians call them the "cemeteries of numbers."

Aruri, the Palestinian human rights lawyer, says his group has documented 256 bodies in these cemeteries. He first began this work in 2008.

"The first case actually was a cousin of mine," says Aruri. "The argument we used in the court was, 'His mother was 80. His father was 85. And their last wish was to bury their son before they die.' And we succeeded in getting the release of the body."

But in many cases, Palestinians haven't been able to get the bodies back.

Saleh Barghouti was wanted by Israel for a shooting attack when he was shot dead by the military in 2018 in Ramallah, a short distance from his home.

Six years later, his mother, Suheir Barghouti, still doesn't know where her son's body is.

"I know that he can be in the cemetery of numbers, or he could still be in the morgue," she says. "As a mother, I would like to know where, because I'm boiling inside, not knowing where the dead body of my beloved son is."

Her living room in Ramallah is a shrine filled with posters of her sons and her late husband, all involved to varying degrees in the conflict and linked to Hamas.

The 64-year-old widow says the Israeli military arrested her at her home in October, though she was not charged with any crime. She was released five weeks later as part of the exchange of Palestinian prisoners for some of the Israeli hostages in Gaza.

Suheir Barghouti's living room has been turned into a shrine filled with posters of her sons and her late husband, all involved to varying degrees in the conflict and linked to Hamas. Shortly after Saleh Barghouti was killed by Israel in 2018, his brother shot and killed Israeli soldiers. He's now serving a life sentence.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Suheir Barghouti's living room has been turned into a shrine filled with posters of her sons and her late husband, all involved to varying degrees in the conflict and linked to Hamas. Shortly after Saleh Barghouti was killed by Israel in 2018, his brother shot and killed Israeli soldiers. He's now serving a life sentence.

Many Israelis and Palestinians see the withholding of their dead as insults to both Jewish and Islamic traditions. Both religions seek swift burials, often on the day of death.

"Muslims want to bury in the same day, before sundown. Jews will bury before midnight," says Baskin. "Islam and Judaism are so similar in so many aspects, and this is one of them."

Back at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv, Udi Goren accepts the priority of getting the living hostages released first. But he says his cousin Tal Chaimi still deserves a proper funeral.

"We want to get my cousin's body back to be buried at home," he says, "in his kibbutz, where he was born and raised, and where he chose to raise a family, and where he died defending the kibbutz."

The family has no idea when that day might come.

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent who was based in Jerusalem from 2000 to 2007. Follow him: @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Greg Myre
Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.