*Editor’s note: August 30th is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearance. The UN defines enforced disappearance as occurring when: “persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organized groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of the Government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.” Budour Hassan extends the definition of state-directed disappearance to Israel’s practice of withholding the bodies of Palestinians, especially those who died resisting the occupation.
“There is nothing more brutal than having nothing of yours, not even a space for death. After a life without a place, having no place to die. After a life owning nothing, not owning even six feet under.” – Burial of the Poor by Eliane Brum, translated by Diane Grosklaus Whitty
An epic poem about war and warriors, Homer’s Iliad is more famous for its graphic, relentless depiction of spears piercing the hearts of men, and men waging an internecine war for the sake of a woman, than for its storytelling. Storytelling and journeying are the legacy of the Iliad’s younger, mischievous sister, the Odyssey.
Maybe, as Mexican author Brenda Lozano ruminates, everything can be divided into the Iliad side and the Odyssey side, the poem of war and the poem of a journey.
Yet for all its obsession with raw violence and unfettered masculinity, the Iliad has also been the setting for one of the most enduring, emotionally charged and courageous journeys in all of literature: the clandestine visit of Priam, the aged king of Troy, across enemy lines to the encampment of Achilles, the lion-hearted son of a goddess. Achilles had slain Priam’s eldest son Hektor, desecrated his corpse and refused to hand him over to the Trojans to avenge Hektor’s killing of Patroklos, Achilles’s lifetime friend and companion. It took the intervention of immortal Zeus, an enormous ransom and the brave and moving supplication of Priam to persuade Achilles to return the corpse.
“I have gone through what no other mortal on earth has gone through,” King Priam entreated. “I put my lips to the hands of the man who has killed my children.” Fifty of Priam’s children perished during the 10-year war, including Hektor, the apple of his eye.
In a twist of empathy, the Iliad poem does not end with a wooden horse or in Troy’s inevitable sacking and destruction at the hands of the marauding Greek army but rather with Hektor’s funeral. This, as classicist Daniel Mendelsohn puts it, highlights the importance of ritual closure. “The end of the Iliad,” he writes, “is a narrative about grief yielding to mourning, about the way in which civilization responds to violence and horror. This dark solace is one that only culture can provide.”
Perhaps it is not only solace, though, but also despair that one draws from a civilization which continues, many a millennium later, to produce Achilleses and Priams, Creons and Antigones: regimes bent on punishing the dead and weaponizing mourning, and families thrust in an asymmetric fight for the right to bury the bodies with dignity, water the graves, and say their proper goodbyes. It is a testimony to the universality and power of literature that Priam’s quest or Antigone’s (losing) battle still resonates with us and speaks to our condition, but it is simultaneously an indictment of civilization that such primordial themes are relevant and relatable in 2020.
But as one scours ancient epics and plays for a measure of meaning and identification that do not reside beyond the boundaries of literature, a question emerges as a specter that no deep reading or digging can exorcise. Is there any solace for the parents of Ahmad Erekat, whose son’s body has been withheld in an Israeli morgue since June 23, whose faint hopes of receiving the body for burial rest on the warped, skewed justice of the occupation? Is there any solace for some 66 Palestinian families whose loved ones’ bodies have been held captive by Israel as bargaining chips over the past five years? What about the Palestinian mothers who died before retrieving their children’s bones from the Israeli cemeteries of numbers, having awaited their return for decades? What is left for those who cannot count on divine interventions, who cannot ransom their children’s bodies, and who do not dare expect the bare minimum of humanity from their children’s killers? The flight into the arms of poetic justice and literary evocations appears too inadequate a recompense, too desperate a substitute, too scant a comfort.
While their relatives and neighbors in their native Abu Dis and across Palestine visited the cemeteries on the first day of Eid al-Adha to read al-Fatihah by their loved ones’ graves, Ahmad Erekat’s parents are still denied the closure and intimacy associated with this ritual. They are incapable of making sense of his sudden loss, his killing, execution-style, near a checkpoint. They can hardly begin to come to terms with the fact that this happened hours before his sister’s wedding, that they are rallying for the right to hold a funeral at a time when they were supposed to be preparing for Ahmad’s own wedding, which was scheduled for July.
For Muhammad Alayan, this struggle to make sense is painfully familiar. On October 3, 2015, his 23-year-old son Bahaa, a native of Jabal al-Mukabber in occupied Jerusalem, was killed after attacking a bus in the illegal settlement of Armon HaNatziv, built and expanded on lands confiscated by Israel from Jabal al-Mukabber. The attack left three Israelis dead.
A community organizer, self-taught graphic designer and scout leader, Bahaa belonged to a generation that refused to be inured to daily injustices and dispossession or to be tricked by the peroration on peace and normalcy.
The shooting attack he carried out against the settler bus in October 2015 was used by the Israeli government to intensify an already massive crackdown against Jerusalem’s Palestinian residents at the height of what is commonly referred to as the “intifada of knives,” a leaderless wave of individual attacks by Palestinian youth attempting to break free from the chokehold of occupation and oppression.
In retaliation for the attack, the Israeli police issued a demolition order against Bahaa’s family home. His body, meanwhile, was seized by Israeli police at the scene and withheld in a police morgue for 10 months. During those months, Muhammad Alayan was turned upside down; not only did he lose his son and his home, he soon became one of the focal figures in the battle of Palestinian families to bury their loved ones. Parents and siblings fought for the reclamation of the bodies of their dead as though they were fighting to secure the release of living prisoners; the enormity of the death was briefly overshadowed by the obligation to recover and welcome back the lifeless body: a national, social, cultural, religious, parental obligation.
Contemplating life in “arrested time” — that “acute sensation of being cut off from any temporal flow that can grip you after the sudden death of your child” — poet Denise Riley writes that “the person who says, ‘I keep expecting to hear his key in the door any moment’ isn’t merely falling back on a well-worn trope. She’s issuing a factual report.” Muhammad Alayan was straddled by this expectation, by the seemingly undeniable fact of his son’s impending return, making other concerns seem irrelevant, including the punitive demolition of his home or the refusal of occupation authorities to renew his wife’s Jerusalem residency permit because she refused to disown Bahaa and decry his action. The daily anticipation of Bahaa’s footsteps nearing the door at 10 pm convinced Muhammad that his son was burrowing into his shoulders for warmth. The absence of a body to mourn magnified the sensation of floating in a time that had lost its flow: He was so invested in the struggle to reclaim and bury the body that he found no room for private grief or for reckoning with the sudden absence of his son. The items Bahaa carried with him were gradually delivered back to the family bit by bit, making it appear as though he was dying in installments.
By the time Bahaa’s body was released from the morgue and returned to the family for burial, the overwhelming majority of the bodies Israel withheld since October 2015 had also been returned. Israel resumed its policy of withholding Palestinian martyrs’ bodies in that month as part of a larger plan to quell the uprising brewing in Jerusalem and across the West Bank after the practice had gone into abeyance for almost a decade.
The Israeli decision to return most of the bodies was not a forgone conclusion, however. Palestinians had to take to the streets, file petitions before the Israeli High Court, and agree to stifling restrictions imposed by the occupation. These included limiting the number of participants in the funerals, holding them at night or at dawn, banning political slogans, and ordering the burial to take place in a cemetery other than the family’s traditional burial place. Prerequisites such as immediate burial with no autopsy or signing pledges to guarantee the fulfillment of such restrictions were often stipulated. These restrictions would, in March 2018, be codified into primary legislation and thus join a long list of repressive measures contained in Israel’s counterterrorism law.
Clad in the garb of public order and state security, these norms reflect the extent to which Israel looks to control Palestinian lives (and deaths) and to depoliticize their grief.
Discussing precariousness and grievability, Judith Butler notes that outrage intertwined with open grieving possesses “enormous political potential.” By restricting the number of participants in funerals and criminalizing political and national slogans, by delaying these funerals through the lengthy withholding of corpses, and by threatening families that fail to meet the conditions with hefty fines, Israel seeks to deny Palestinians the opportunity to express collective open grieving, thus suppressing the political potential it contains.
Mourning is erroneously associated with resignation and passivity, but the importance of open grieving as a resource of politics lies in its capacity to catapult subversion, to create a horizontal space for direct action.
In addition to the pretext of maintaining security and public order, Israel withholds Palestinian martyrs’ bodies for the explicit aim of using them as bargaining chips in potential prisoner swaps with Palestinian factions. Whereas restrictions on funerals were inscribed into Israeli counterterrorism law, the legal basis for the prolonged withholding of bodies continues to be the British emergency regulations of 1945, namely regulation 133(3), which grants the military commander the power to conduct immediate burial of “any person” under his jurisdiction.
Using this regulation as its springboard, the Israeli cabinet formally adopted the “Uniform Policy on Handling the corpses of Terrorists” in January 2017. As a rule, martyrs’ bodies are to be handed over to their families, subject to certain restrictions laid out by security officials, unless one of two exceptions materializes: if the martyr is affiliated with Hamas (and thus can be used as leverage in future negotiations with the group) and/or if the attack he allegedly perpetrated is deemed to be exceptionally egregious.
Examining the legality of this policy, the Israeli High Court initially ruled in December 2017 that regulation 133(3) does not provide a sufficiently direct and unequivocal legal basis for the practice. If the state wants to continue pursuing this policy, the court concluded, it must enact a specific law that expressly authorizes it to withhold bodies as a negotiating tactic. But passing a law which states that human bones can be transformed into bargaining chips appeared too crude. So instead of having to tread this path, Israel requested a further hearing before an extended panel into the issue.
Lo and behold, the court reversed its decision, allowing the state to continue withholding the body of any Palestinian who meets the criteria of the cabinet’s uniform policy. Issued in September 2019, the court’s majority decision showed that one can dispense with language and legal clarity for the sake of protecting the state’s interests. The state’s interests lay in insuring the return of the bodies of the two Israeli soldiers captured by Hamas in the 2014 war on Gaza. The court’s chief justice was aware that the regulation says nothing of bargaining chips but somehow surmised, after a show of legal gymnastics, that the purposive interpretation of the regulation would allow the state to use the bodies as bargaining chips.
Protecting national security has repeatedly served as a convenient justification for some of Israel’s most repressive policies against Palestinians. Under its aegis, Israel’s High Court has greenlit practices that trample upon Palestinians rights and strip them of their human dignity all the while maintaining a smidgeon of legality and procedural justice. Beyond this fancy packaging, Israel’s withholding of Palestinian bodies, a practice which predates Hamas by decades, cannot be divorced from its quest to exercise and expand its control and sovereignty over Palestinian lives and deaths. It is an articulation of what Cameroonian thinker Achille Mbembe terms necropolitics. To exercise sovereignty, he writes, is “to exercise control over mortality and to define life as the deployment and manifestation of power.” Such manifestations of power can be found in the morgues, where dozens of Palestinian bodies lay frozen, waiting for warmth and eternal rest; in cemeteries sealed off as closed military zones, where the bones of hundreds of Palestinians are scattered in shallow graves without proper marking and identification; in the occasional spectacle of public humiliation, as seen during the videotaped abuse of Muhammad ali al-Naim’s dead body in Gaza last February.
A more systematic and widespread abuse of dead bodies takes place in the Sonoran desert on the US-Mexico border. There, the post-mortem mistreatment inflicted by the US border police on the bodies of undocumented Central American migrants also serves as an instrument to deter future migrants from attempting to cross the border. Discussing these practices in The Land of Open Graves, anthropologist Jason de León adopts the term necroviolence, which he defines as “violence performed and produced through the specific treatment of corpses that is perceived to be offensive, sacrilegious, or inhumane by the perpetrator, the victim (and her or his cultural group), or both.”
Such definition appears to adequately capture Israel’s withholding and/or mistreatment of dead Palestinian bodies as well. Necroviolence can thus be added to the list of “values” shared by Israel and the United States.
Wherever they are located on the map of their fragmented country, Palestinians are trapped in a labyrinth sustained not just by naked force but also by bureaucracy: by ostensibly neutral laws and a suffocating permit regime designed to control and dictate the most mundane, most personal aspects of their lives. The labyrinth is guarded by a justice system that lives off the same myths upon which Israel itself was founded. The myth dissolves once the gatekeeper glimpses a Palestinian face, but somehow it self-perpetuates.
Palestinians do not leave the labyrinth even after their death. It literally chases them beyond the grave. This chase, this insistence on disciplining the dead Palestinian body even in death can be classified as necropolitics, necroviolence or post-mortem punishment. Naming things as they are is the first step towards remembering, resisting, and reclaiming.
In her powerful retelling of the Iliad, poet Alice Oswald centers the young men who perished during the Trojan war; she names them and by naming them and telling their stories, or scraps of their stories, she recreates their world and offers them a modicum of justice and boundless empathy.
Reimagining Hektor’s return to his wife Andromache, Oswald writes:
“He came back to her sightless
Asking only to be washed and burned
And his bones wrapped in soft cloths
And returned to the ground”
And somehow, in my mind at least, these lines turn into a bridge from Troy to Abu Dis, where Najah Erekat, Ahmad’s mother, shouts in the face of Israeli soldiers “I want my son back.” She wants her son’s body to be wrapped in soft cloths — in the Palestinian flag — and returned to the ground. She has waited for this moment since June 23.