Palestinian bombers’ bodies returned after decade

BETHLEHEM, West Bank — When 18-year-old Ayat al-Akhras blew herself up outside a busy Jerusalem supermarket in 2002, killing two Israelis, her grieving parents were unable to bury her and say their final goodbyes because Israel refused to send her remains home.

More than a decade later, after appeals from human rights groups, Israel is handing over some 30 bodies of Palestinian assailants, including that of al-Akhras, enabling her family to arrange a funeral.

Israel has returned the remains of Palestinian attackers from time to time during the decades of conflict, sometimes as part of prisoner swaps, but the current round involves the most recent suicide bombers and gunmen and has revived painful memories for families and friends of some of the victims.

In the West Bank town of Bethlehem, the teenage bomber’s parents, Mohammed and Khadra al-Akhras, expect an easing of their grief.

“The pain will end,” said Mohammed al-Akhras, 67, who chain-smoked while he talked and rested his hands — gnarled from years of manual labor — on top of the cane he uses to walk with. “At any time during the day, during the night, we can go and visit her,” he added.

In Israel, the return of the remains of attackers from the second Palestinian uprising a decade ago has provoked some anger.

“Those who killed civilians should be treated like people who committed war crimes,” said Meir Indor, head of Almagor, a group that speaks for victims of attacks by militants. “Eichmann’s body was not given back,” he added, referring to Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi who was executed by Israel in 1962 for his role as one of the architects of the Holocaust.

The Israeli rights group HaMoked appealed to Israel’s Supreme Court in 2011, seeking release of the remains of 31 assailants. The group said that the court didn’t rule, but that Israel’s Defense Ministry decided late last year to hand over about 30 bodies. The Defense Ministry was not immediately available for comment.

Since the beginning of the year, Israel has returned seven bodies of assailants from the second uprising, with two more scheduled Sunday, including that of al-Akhras, Palestinian activists said. Dozens more Palestinian militants killed in clashes or in suicide attacks are still believed to be in burial spots in Israel, off-limits to their families.

Al-Akhras struck on a rainy Friday afternoon in March 2002, a bloody month at the height of the second Palestinian uprising. A spate of bombings and other attacks had left Israel on edge, with heightened security measures in place.

She drove with a friend from her home in a slum refugee camp for Palestinians near Bethlehem to a Jerusalem supermarket less than 10 miles away. The Supersol grocery store, situated in a strip mall in the working-class neighborhood of Kiryat Yovel, was crowded with shoppers buying food for the Jewish Sabbath.

Security guard Haim Smadar, 55, was searching the bags of people going into the store. He challenged al-Akhras, suspicious of her behavior, and she detonated her explosives at the entrance.

A doctor caught up in the blast found the security guard bleeding to death on the pavement. His legs were gone. Al-Akhras was dead, and in the rubble, investigators found an unexploded mortar shell.

On Sunday at the Supersol, a security guard stood in Smadar’s old spot. A plaque on the wall commemorated him and Rachel Levy, a 17-year-old Israeli also killed in the blast.

Levy’s parents declined to comment. Almagor said the Levys were upset to learn in the media about the body of their daughter’s killer being returned to the West Bank.

A Supersol cashier on the job Sunday morning was also working the day of the attack. She started to cry when an Associated Press journalist tried to talk to her about the blast. Sunday’s body transfer awakened raw memories, and her manager asked AP to leave.

In the weeks before the attack, there were few signs that al-Akhras had become radicalized, according to her parents. Engaged to be married, she was a good student from a big, traditional Palestinian family of 10 brothers and sister. Some of them had been in and out of Israeli jails.

Looking back, the mother said her daughter was restless at the time, that she couldn’t sleep with the noise of gunfire as Israelis and militant groups engaged each other in fierce battles.

At some point, al-Akhras made contact with the Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a militant group that claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Khadra al-Akhras, 62, remains unapologetic for her daughter’s actions, saying: “Each drop of blood from each child achieved hope for the Palestinian people”.

At a small cemetery outside Bethlehem, a grave was prepared for al-Akhras. Her elderly parents, who struggle to climb the steep steps to the graveyard, paused Saturday at the entrance to say a verse from the Quran.

The mother then climbed into the empty grave where her daughter was to be buried, and started to clear small stones and weeds. Her husband told her she shouldn’t do it.

“No, I’m her mother. It’s OK!” she replied.

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