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Skeleton found under Gaza rubble painful reminder for families of Palestinians missing since 2014

July 31, 2016 9:27 P.M. (Updated: Oct. 7, 2016 10:46 A.M.)
A Palestinian boy walks past the rubble of his family's former house on May 11, 2015, in Gaza City’s Shujayya neighborhood. (AFP/Thomas Coex, File)
GAZA CITY (Ma’an) -- Remains of a human skeleton were found on Sunday under the rubble of a house in the Gaza City’s eastern neighborhood of Shujayya, which was devastated by an Israeli ground incursion during the most recent Israeli military offensive in the summer of 2014.

The discovery of the two-year-old remains has brought back to the surface difficult memories for the families of Palestinians who were declared missing during the war, which left more than 2,000 Palestinians dead, including at least 1,462 civilians according to the UN.

Human rights groups reported that numerous Palestinians went missing during the 51-day military offensive. Some were later found, either alive or dead, although the fate of many others remains unknown.

Among those still missing two years later is Noor Omran, who disappeared after Israeli ground troops invaded the town of al-Qarara in the Khan Yunis district in the southern Gaza Strip.

On the night of July 23, 2014, then 16-year-old Noor got on his motorcycle to go to the family’s poultry farm, unaware that Israeli troops had just invaded and taken over that area, his brother Muatasim recalls.

Noor did not come back that night, and his family hasn’t heard from him since.

His family searched the farm he was supposed to visit over and over, with the hopes of finding a body or remains, but every search left the grieving family empty-handed. All that remained was his motorcycle, untouched, with no signs of gunshots or blood.

“He seems to have left the motorcycle and taken the keys with him. This motorcycle remains a witness to the last place he was before he disappeared,” Muatasim says.

According to Muatasim, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has tried to help the family find Noor, by taking DNA samples from the family and submitting them to Israeli authorities to see if they were holding him prisoner or withholding his body -- to no avail.

“It’s likely that the issue of missing persons, including my brother, is tied to the issue of Israeli soldiers held in Gaza,” Muatasim says, referring to the Israeli soldiers who disappeared during the 2014 war, and have been held as a bargaining chip between Hamas and the Israeli government.

The two Israeli soldiers at the center of prisoner negotiations, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, were pronounced dead during the 2014 war, as Hamas later claimed to be holding their bodies.

The two soldiers’ families in November demonstrated to pressure the Israeli government to halt the return of all Palestinian bodies -- including those of Palestinians from occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank killed since October -- until Hamas turned over the soldiers’ bodies.

The Omran family says it has been suffering since Noor's disappearance, and that it would be "a thousand times easier" to have learned that the teenager had died a “martyr” than to remain in the dark about his fate for two years.

“It’s a disaster," Muatasim says. "Our family is swinging between having hope and losing hope."

Muatasim Omran shows a picture of his brother Noor. (MaanImages)

In April 2015, the Israeli government announced that it held the bodies of 19 Palestinians killed during the 2014 war, but neither Israeli nor Palestinian authorities gave the names of the slain Palestinians, according to Muatasim.

Prisoners affairs expert Abd al-Nasser Farawaneh tells Ma’an that the case of missing Palestinians remained unaddressed because of both Israeli and Palestinian leadership.

Farawaneh says many families of the missing have not reached out to the ICRC or other human rights organizations for help, out of fear that Israel might retaliate against them for their missing relative's participation in resistance against Israeli forces.

Lawyer Yahya Muharib of the al-Mezan Center for Human Rights says that the Israeli military prosecution has never cooperated in the cases they brought forward, hindering any progress for the distressed families.

Despite the overall difficulty of the process, Muharib says that the al-Mezan Center managed to obtain information from Israeli sources about some of the Palestinians who went missing during the 2014 war, and were able to declare them as being alive and in Israeli custody.

However, after six cases were dealt with in coordination with Israeli military prosecution, Muharib claims Israeli authorities stopped cooperating, even after al-Mezan submitted requested ‘power of attorney’ documents..

Such was the fate of Noor Omran's case.

Echoing Muatasim’s suspicions, Farawneh says that Israel does not want to give the names of dead Palestinian bodies it holds in order to use them as bargaining chips in the eventuality of a deal to exchange them with the bodies of Israeli soldiers held in Gaza.

“Israel hasn’t announced the names or details in attempt to put pressure on Hamas and to use it as a bargaining chip for negotiations,” the lawyer affirms

On the Palestinian side, things have also been left ambiguous by Hamas leadership, which has not released numbers or details regarding missing Gazans.

Farawaneh attributes the lack of clarity from Palestinian leadership to “security reasons,” saying Hamas can’t announce the names of missing people since it remains unaware of who is among the 19 bodies held by Israel, and whose bodies possibly remain trapped under rubble two years on.

The missing people, he says, “could be alive and held in Israeli prisons, but the Palestinian side doesn’t want to reveal their identities,” to avoid misleading their families into thinking they are dead.

While both Israel and Hamas continue to use the bodies in their possession as bargaining chips, the families of the missing Palestinians, like Noor Omran’s relatives, remain “swinging” between hope and the torturous wait for a resolution.
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