When the family received the body back, it was an ice box, still frozen solid in parts. The handover took place at a checkpoint in the early evening. In exchange for his son's corpse, Farouk Hamdan paid a deposit of 20,000 shekels ($5,100) to Israeli security forces. The money, he was told, would be returned as long as he kept to his side of the deal: No large funeral and no autopsy.
Since the beginning of October, some 140 Palestinians have been killed in the most bloody round of violence since the Second Intifada between 2000 and 2005. Of those, according to Israeli security services, 90 were shot dead while carrying out knife, gun, or car attacks that have killed 24 Israelis and wounded dozens more.
The issue of how, when, and under what conditions to return the remains of those that carried out attacks — many of whom are honored by the Palestinian community as as martyrs — is so controversial that months after their deaths many of the assailants' bodies remain on ice. Indeed, the matter has divided Israeli authorities, leading to disparate policies depending on where the family lives: the West Bank or Jerusalem.
Israel's Defense Ministry, which handles the return of bodies to families living in the West Bank, has now handed over the vast majority of bodies, under the condition that families agree to hold small funerals and not carry out post-mortems. Withholding the remains, defense officials told the government, would only serve to "stir up [tensions in] the West Bank."
In stark contrast, Israel's Public Security Ministry, which handles the return of remains to families living in Jerusalem, has refused to hand back most of the bodies it is responsible for, citing fears that large funerals and protests often held after burials were offensive and would incite more attacks against Israelis. Palestinian neighborhoods in the east of Jerusalem were formally annexed by Israel in 1980, bringing them under the remit of domestic security forces rather than ministry of defense and army.
The ministry will not return bodies until the families agree to hold burials and funerals outside the city limits. According to rights groups nine bodies, all belonging to families from east Jerusalem, are still being held by the Israeli authorities, some now in their possession for several months.
"Citizens of Israel don't need to see, in the streets of Israel, a campaign of praise and glory for vile terrorists," wrote Israel's hawkish Public Security Minister, Gilad Erdan, in a recent Facebook post. "I stand behind the decision not to return the bodies of terrorists until it is assured that the funerals of those murderers will not become a display of support and incitement to terror."
The issue has created friction in Israel's parliament. Earlier this month the Knesset Ethics Committee banned three Arab parliamentarians from participating in committee discussions after they participated in a one-minute silence where Palestinians killed in the latest round of violence were honored as martyrs. The banned MPs also visited families lobbying for the return of bodies from Israel.
Among those still waiting for a body is the Aweisat family from Jabal Mukkaber, a predominantly Palestinian neighborhood in east Jerusalem. Ahmed Aweisa, 68, is father to 20 children, but when he goes to bed he can only think of one. "I sleep on an electric blanket for my back pain, and when I feel its warmth I see in my mind's eye my son in the freezer, so cold," he told VICE News.
Aweisat last saw his son, 16-year-old Mutaz, more than four months ago. After he left the family home Mutaz was shot by Israeli police who say he tried to stab a border guard. Aweisat, who emphasizes he is not nationalist and dismisses politics as "nonsense," maintains his son was carrying a bag full of books on his way to classes. "How am I supposed to feel?" he asked. "My son is dead but I've seen no body, so for me my son is dead and alive — we don't have any closure, we don't have any answers, my wife cries every day and night… He was just a young boy."
The stringent conditions placed on the returns, particularly that no autopsies be carried out, has fuelled anger and suspicion among Palestinians, even in communities where bodies have been returned. It's alleged that Israel uses undue force against attackers; preferring to shoot them rather than detain them, and fails to provide medical treatment to immobilized assailants, instead allowing them to bleed to death.
The Hamdan family, from al-Bireh, a town next to Ramallah in West Bank, said that they had wanted to perform a post-mortem — despite agreeing not to — after hearing that 29-year-old Hikmat Hamdan, who rammed his car into Israeli soldiers, had been shot and then left to bleed to death in street after ambulances were prevented from accessing the area.
But when the doctor examined the frozen body the family received they said it would take more than 72 hours to thaw sufficiently. Having already waited three weeks to get the corpse back the Hamdans opted for a hasty funeral; Islamic tradition calls for bodies to be buried within a day of death.
"Withholding bodies, and preventing autopsies, by the freezing of bodies or other means, prevents the verification of circumstances of the killing and holding an impartial investigation," said a spokesperson from Addameer, a Jerusalem-based human rights and prisoner support NGO. "It constitutes collective punishment of families and the community and is an obstacle to accountability."
This view was echoed by the NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW). "Since October, there have been persistent and credible allegations, at least in some cases, that security officials are employing excessive use of force against suspected Palestinian attackers, and some senior Israeli officials have made statements telling police to kill — rather than arrest — Palestinian suspects," Sari Bashi, HRW's Israel/Palestine Director told VICE News. "Investigating conduct of police and soldiers is the responsibility of the Israeli authorities, but delaying the return of bodies and setting conditions on conducting autopsies obstructs the ability of families and others to get information about suspected misconduct by security officials."
"We are paying the Israelis to get back the bodies of our children" said Hamdan. "When we do eventually get them they are full of holes and like a block of ice… we bury them, but without an autopsy we still have no answers about how they died."
The Israel Defense Forces, Public Security Ministry and the Israel Police Force did not reply to Vice News' requests for comment.
Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem