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“My Son Was Beautiful”: Palestinian Bodies and the Truths That Do Not Reach Us

Palestinian Muhammad Allyan says Israel refuses to release the body of his son, who was killed by Israeli police in 2015.

In the Sheikh Jarrah district of Jerusalem, where many Palestinians have been evicted, 92-year-old Rifka Al-Kurd lives with her family in the half of her house not occupied by Israeli settlers. (Photo: Susan Chen)

On October 13, 2015, news media reported two Palestinian men entering a No. 78 bus in the Armon Hanatziv district of East Jerusalem, then fatally stabbing and shooting two Israeli citizens. One of the alleged attackers, Bahaa Allyan, 22, was shot dead by Israeli police; the other, Bilal Ghanem, 23, was shot and remains in custody. The attack happened during what some have termed the Third Intifada, whose epicenter is Jerusalem, where the Palestinian poverty rate is over 75 percent.

On October 15, 2015, TIME magazine published an article titled, “The Desperation Driving Young Palestinians to Violence,” which describes the anger of young Palestinians whose families “pay taxes like Israeli residents, but receive comparatively few services.” The article opened by describing Bahaa Allyan: “On Tuesday, Allyan, a graphic designer from the predominantly Palestinian neighborhood Jabel Mukaber, was killed by Israeli security forces after allegedly trying to carry out an attack in Jerusalem.”

Within days, an Israeli nongovernmental organization, followed a few months later by Israel’s Government Press Office, denounced TIME for “humanizing the attacker.” They demanded that TIME publish the names of the Israelis killed and assert — not “allege” — that Allyan did not “try,” but had, in fact, carried out the attack. TIME did not immediately respond.

Muhammad Allyan, second from left, sits with family and delegation members in a house next to his demolished home. Far left, Rabab Abdulhadi, translator. (Photo: Susan Chen)Muhammad Allyan, second from left, sits with family and delegation members in a house next to his demolished home. Far left, Rabab Abdulhadi, delegation leader and translator. (Photo: Susan Chen)

Late in October, the story received more attention when Richard Lakin, 76, became the third person to die of wounds inflicted on the bus, in addition to Alon Govberg, 51, and Haviv Haim, 78. Lakin, originally from Connecticut and a noted advocate for Israeli and Palestinian coexistence, was visited, as he lay in a hospital, by a stream of newsmakers, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

“The Israelis have imposed collective punishment on us in many ways.”

A few months ago, I would have read this news story and filed it among a growing list of tragic events that continually occur in the occupied territories. But my understanding of this story shifted this March, when I was part of a delegation of 19 activists from the United States to the West Bank and Israel. There, I saw firsthand that the supposedly “objective” articles I had read about the situation in Palestine had given me a morally disabling sense of balance.

Muhammad Allyan. (Photo: Susan Chen)Muhammad Allyan. (Photo: Susan Chen)I visited a 92-year-old Palestinian woman in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem. She was breathing through an oxygen tube, lying in bed in one half of her house — the other half had been confiscated by Israel and was now occupied by Jewish settlers. I saw Palestinian teenage boys, sitting in the box at military tribunals (Israelis are tried in civil courts), being prosecuted with video evidence — not of an actual crime scene, but of a reenactment made by the Israeli military, based on a “confession” that might have taken weeks to obtain, most likely through torture. I listened to people who had spent decades in Israeli prisons, who had lost land, houses and loved ones. And late in the afternoon of March 26, in the Jabel Mukaber district of Jerusalem, I met Bahaa Allyan’s father.

Muhammad Allyan spoke to our delegation in a house adjacent to a rubble-filled pit that used to be his family’s home. Long before this trip, I’d read of the Israeli government bulldozing or pumping cement into the houses of the families of Palestinians accused of attacking Israelis, throwing stones or “illegally” building houses. But losing their home wasn’t all that happened to the Allyans.

Islamic, like Judaic law, asks the observant to bury their dead within 24 hours of death. All too aware of this, the Israeli government has frozen the body of Bahaa Allyan and is refusing to return it or allow an autopsy that might reveal the cause of death.

Bahaa Allyan (Photo: Susan Chen)Bahaa Allyan (Photo: Bahaa Allyan)This is an old form of Israeli reprisal. Although some Palestinian bodies have remained frozen since the attack on Gaza of 2008-09, the Israeli government had relaxed this policy until last October, when it again began freezing the corpses of dozens of accused Palestinian attackers — mostly teenagers or men and women in their 20s. In recent months, the government has allowed some bodies to be returned, but because it fears big, dangerously political demonstrations, families must agree to bury their dead late at night, while the corpse is still frozen, and limit the number of people at the funeral.

Muhammad Allyan, who has become an activist for Palestinian families seeking the return of their children’s bodies, listened to the members of the US delegation introduce ourselves: academics, prison abolitionists, people who had done US prison time for political as well as “criminal” acts. An 81-year-old ex-Black Panther who remembered a Black child burned to death in the 1950s South; a Japanese-American mother and educator who lives with the legacy of her family’s years in a US concentration camp … After we introduced ourselves, Muhammad Allyan, through interpreter and delegation leader Rabab Abdulhadi, began to speak:

I’m a lawyer and a writer. I write short stories and essays. I will share my experience with you. Maybe it will be difficult, but I think you will understand, given the struggles in which you are involved.

There are two experiences I do not wish on you or anyone. I am the father of a martyr, and my house has been demolished.

On October 13, 2015, I was called by the Israeli intelligence services and told, “Your son was killed.”

Why was he killed? They claimed it was because he had tried to stab and shoot on the bus. As a lawyer, I asked for proof. Evidence that it was my son who had done this. I also asked to see his body, and I was denied that right. They have not presented me with any proof that he did what they say he did. Until now, Israel refuses to publish any kind of details about what happened.

According to international law, to the United Nations, to all the laws we know, you are responsible for an act that you as an individual commit. Let’s suppose, just hypothetically, that my son did what they said he did. He stabbed and he was killed, which means he has received his punishment, legally speaking.

Then why are his father, his mother, his grandmother, his grandfather, his young siblings — why are they being punished?

The Israelis have imposed collective punishment on us in many ways. First, they basically kidnap and hold under siege the body of our son. Since October 13 until now, six months later, they refuse to release him. Second, they demolish the homes — our home that has the memories of love, of pain, of happiness, of all the things that have happened among us. The third is they are threatening to deport us to Gaza or to Syria. They think, wrongly, that collective punishment is going to affect the struggle [of] Palestinians for their freedom. We’ll stop resistance when the occupation ends, not through collective punishment.

The Withholding of Palestinian Bodies

Muhammad Allyan described waiting months for Israeli intelligence to call and tell him to come get the body of his son. He explained that, even when bodies are released, families must agree — in addition to consenting to late-night burials and limiting the number of attendees — not to take photos and to pay a 20,000-shekel deposit (over $5,200) to guarantee they will not violate burial conditions. Even if those conditions are met, Allyan said, the money is never returned. He went on to describe the relentless pall that comes with knowing your child’s body lies frozen in the hands of those who execrate it:

A week ago I saw something I would have taken for granted before but now I see differently. I saw a little cat carrying its dead baby. It was digging the ground and burying it. I thought to myself, even the animal would like to bury its dead children. What about people?

It’s been six months we’ve been struggling — legally, in the media, internationally, and on the grassroots level — for the liberation of the bodies of our children who are held in the refrigerators. We do not know what this extreme cold temperature does to the body. It may destroy the organs; it may destroy the corpse itself. What is the guarantee that the body has not disintegrated? This is a body with bullets in it, embedded in a block of ice.

There is no stability. We are exhausted and concerned and worry at night. All we want is to meet death in the face. We, as Muslims and as humans, cannot face death until we see the body, at the funeral. To say goodbye. We are still waiting, in a continuous state of accepting condolences.

What are they gaining from holding the bodies of children?

Earlier today, I told a delegation of American psychiatrists that I believe it was actually psychiatrists that have advised the Israeli military to inflict this kind of pain on the Palestinian people. Because this is systemic. It’s well studied and planned. And Israel insists on using it despite all the measures from international and local communities.


In order to issue a proper complaint to the Israeli Supreme Court, Allyan continued, an autopsy is necessary. However, the Israeli government bars families of accused Palestinians from obtaining autopsies. So the truth, he said, can be buried even though the body cannot. And the suffering continues even when the Israelis do release a body.

The state of the corpse is indescribable. This is really so hurtful. Imagine the body in a block of ice. If his hands are like this, [Allyan raises his arms away from his body, showing clawed fingers] they stay like this. You cannot fold them; you cannot put anything in them. We cannot even put them in the grave. We cannot put the arms like this [holding his arms at his sides], according to Islamic law. And usually they demand that you bury within an hour and a half.

We, the families of the young kids who are kidnapped, went to agencies, including the International Committee of the Red Cross. We have asked for a neutral, international fact-finding mission to look at the bodies. And we wanted them to dissolve the ice before they give the bodies back. Now we have a case in the Supreme Court. But from my experience, the Israeli High Court is not going to make a decision that would contradict Israeli intelligence.

Two days ago, we issued a public appeal to the Palestinian Authority to demand that we receive the bodies of our children. We were not as concerned about the destruction of our homes. We said that the house is not more important than the body.

Respect for an Occupied People

Even in the face of immense grief, Palestinians bear the injury of being thought of as less than human. The Israeli narrative, Muhammad Allyan reflected, claims that Palestinians are terrorists:

Western media do not want to hear that there is a Palestinian reality. When I receive international reporters, they tell me, “It was your son who murdered.” I say I do not know if he killed anybody. We do not have any proof that he did.

You have to understand that it is not enough to cry when an Israeli is killed. You have to understand that we are an occupied people. We are dying. Our land is being confiscated. Our homes are being demolished. At the same time we’re accused of being terrorists. Even when there’s a war situation, there is supposed to be values and standards. There is supposed to be respect for occupied people.

What is it that allows an Israeli soldier to shoot a child? And let them bleed to death without doing anything? Imagine a heavily armed military saying it’s defending itself against a child, who is maybe carrying a knife or scissors or a little sharpened pencil. This child is seen as a terrorist. These truths do not reach you.

My son was beautiful. He was an artist. Bahaa was educated, well read, engaged with other Palestinian youth. He created the longest reading circle in the world around the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City; it actually entered the Guinness Book of Records. So, if he did this stabbing, why? Perhaps that question should be posed to the Israelis.

When Bahaa used to go from home to work, he saw the checkpoints. He saw children being killed; he saw women being beaten up; he saw the cement blocks that shut down the streets; he saw young people, naked, being searched. Bahaa could not bear seeing these daily occurrences. And we as a generation of leaders did not provide a solution. Bahaa gave his life for what he believed in. But there are a thousand ways people can model after him without endangering themselves. I don’t want his friends to die.

A couple of weeks later, I’m home in New York City. TIME magazine has, by now, revised its October 2015 story to read that Bahaa Allyan “killed two passengers in an attack on a Jerusalem bus.” I’m sitting in a coffee bar in Greenwich Village, while Amin Husain, a Palestinian filmmaker, tries to explain things I still have trouble grasping. The word “martyr,” for instance, Husain says, is someone who is a witness to oppression. Husain, who is from a Palestinian village where five Israeli settlements surround his house, is working on a film called The Coming Intifada.

He talks about what it means for a Palestinian to come at an Israeli with a knife or a gun or a pair of scissors, for innocent civilians to be killed:

Most of these Palestinians have lost brothers and sisters. They have family in prison. They have no future. They live with a system trying to take away their dignity. It’s the same as you saw in Ferguson. The Ferguson rebellion was by people who were being killed, fighting to reclaim their dignity.

Israel is notorious for using a web of law, language, logic, media, perceptions. Their project is one of dehumanization. That’s why there’s a link to Black Lives Matter. Palestinian lives under Israeli rule don’t matter. And not mattering, Palestinians are just a PR problem. How do you deal with a PR problem? You tell people they want to die for no reason. You say they kill innocent people. Who is innocent in all this?

And now, on May 5, 2016, at the Israeli Supreme Court, the State Attorney’s Office announced that authorities would begin making preparations for the “gradual handover” of nine of the at least 19 Palestinian bodies still held by the government, as long as government demands are met and funeral rites do not “glorify” the names of the dead. At the time of this writing, it is unclear if Bahaa Allyan’s body is one of them.

Note: Laura Whitehorn offered invaluable support and help on this article.

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