Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip on Thursday gathered to welcome the return of the bodies of 91 Palestinians which had been held in an Israeli cemetery.
The release of Palestinian remains, some held for decades in unnamed graves in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was slated by Israeli officials as a goodwill “gesture” to President Mahmoud Abbas.
The president laid wreaths on 79 coffins, draped in Palestinian flags, at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah at a military ceremony on Thursday afternoon.
General Mufti Muhammad Hassan prayed over the bodies, before relatives took their remains for burial. Seventeen bodies will be buried in a mass grave in Ramallah because their families could not be identified, the minister of detainee affairs Issa Qaraqe said earlier.
In the Gaza Strip, the remains of 12 Palestinians crossed through the Erez terminal to large crowds gathered to greet them.
The bodies were taken to Gaza City’s Shifa Hospital for forensic checks before being laid out at the Omari mosque where the families made their farewells before burial.
The brother of Muaawiyah Raqat, whose body was among the 12, lauded the return as a “huge victory for the Palestinian people, resistance and the government in Gaza.”
Meanwhile the brother of Muhammad al-Khatib, whose body was kept by Israel for 17 years, said he wondered what Israel had gained by holding on to the remains for so long.
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Gaza government spokesman Taher Nunu said: “Despite the bitterness of loss and pain of separation, the Palestinian government congratulates the Palestinian people and the families of those killed for the recovery of the bodies which formed a new victory.
“Detaining the remains of our martyrs confirms the enemy’s lack of humanity and their effort to punish Palestinians who are dead or alive,” he continued.
Spokesman of the campaign for the bodies’ return, Nashaat al-Wahidi, said “the release of the remains is not a gesture of goodwill, rather they were freed through the Palestinian people’s struggles.”
Since the 1960s, Israel has withheld the bodies of hundreds of Palestinians, interred in numbered, rather than named, graves in a cemetery in the occupied West Bank’s Jordan Valley.
On Tuesday, the PA civil affairs minister released a list of names of Palestinians whose bodies will be released.
The hand-over of Palestinian remains was promised by Ofir Gendelman, spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as a “gesture” to President Mahmoud Abbas, in the wake of a deal to end a mass hunger strike in Israeli jails.
The decision was announced two days after a meeting between Abbas and Israeli envoy Yitzhak Molcho in Ramallah, but Gendelman said it was part of the hunger strike deal, which both Hamas and Abbas’ rival Fatah faction claimed as their success.