Israel returns remains of 91 Palestinian fighters

Palestinian remains
RAMALLAH, West Bank –- Israel on Thursday returned the remains of 91 Palestinians it had been holding for many years in graves marked only by numbers.

The remains, released as a goodwill gesture toward Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, were of Palestinians who died in suicide attacks or in battle with Israeli forces.

Ninety-one coffins were handed over to the Palestinian Authority early Thursday for reburial; 79 were brought to Ramallah and the remainder to Gaza.

In Ramallah, families waited at the presidential headquarters where a military funeral was held.  Guards fired 21 bullets in the air as a tribute to the dead, whom Palestinians refer to as martyrs.

“Our martyrs are now physically with us after they were with us only in our minds and hearts,” Palestinian Authority  Secretary-General Tayyeb Abdul Rahim told the hundreds of families who waited to take their sons and daughters to be buried in their hometowns. Abbas attended the ceremony but did not say anything.

“I feel like I had just lost my son,” said Basima Hanani, 43, mother of Sayd Hanani, who blew himself up in Tel Aviv on Dec. 26, 2003. She remembers the date because it was his 18th birthday. “Even though eight years have passed, it feels today the same as the time when I was told my son had died,” she said.

She said she would bury her son's remains in their village, Beit Forik in the northern West Bank. “At least now he will be close to us and we can visit him whenever we want,” she said.

Older people fainted near coffins that had names of their children on them.

Most of the remains were those of young Palestinians killed in suicide attacks in Israel in the last 10 years or in battles with Israeli soldiers who had sought to arrest them. Others were of Palestinian fighters killed in cross-border attacks since the mid-1970s, most prominently bodies of seven who infiltrated from the sea and were killed when Israeli special forces attempted to rescue hostages held in a Tel Aviv hotel in 1975.

Palestinian groups who had filed legal action in Israel to force the release of the remains say they expect more to be released in the next few weeks. They say there are an additional 200 Palestinians still held in special cemeteries in Israel.

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-- Maher Abukhater

Photo: Palestinian presidential guards carry flag-draped coffins containing the remains of  militants during an official ceremony in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Thursday. Credit: Atef Safadi / EPA

 
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