Israel returns the remains of Palestinian bodies

The BBC's Jon Donnison tells of emotional scenes in Ramallah

Israel has handed over to the Palestinian Authority the remains of 91 Palestinians who died carrying out attacks against Israel.

The remains include suicide bombers and militants who died in operations as far back as 1975.

The repatriation of the bodies forms part of a deal to end a mass hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

Israeli officials say the transfer is a confidence-building gesture.

However, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has given no indication that he is willing to return to talks.

Coffins containing the remains, which had been interred in numbered graves in an Israeli military cemetery for "enemy combatants", were handed over at dawn.

21-gun salute


Palestinians don't have a state but the ceremony today had some of the trappings of a state funeral. Proceedings were led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

There was a military feel. A lone bugler played the Last Post and Palestinian security forces offered a salute, firing into the air.

Relatives of the dead then carried the coffins draped in red, black, white and green Palestinian flags and loaded them on to trucks. The remains will now be reburied.

For most Palestinians, these men were martyrs who died fighting for the Palestinian cause. Some were suicide bombers. For Israelis, they were terrorists responsible for the deaths of scores of civilians.

This transfer was part of a deal earlier this month to end a mass hunger strike by hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. Israel said it was a gesture aimed at building confidence.

Such confidence is in short supply. Direct peace talks between the two sides collapsed in 2010. Most Palestinians and Israelis would say only a fool would be optimistic about a significant breakthrough any time soon.

The head of the Palestinian general committee for civil affairs said 79 coffins were transferred to Ramallah, where the Palestinian Authority (PA) has its headquarters.

The official said the other 12 were taken to Gaza, which is run by the militant Islamist Hamas movement.

President Abbas, the head of the PA, attended a ceremony at his compound, Muqataa, to receive the coffins, each of them draped in a Palestinian flag.

According to Israeli media, Hamas will hold a full military service for the remains in Gaza, with each coffin receiving a 21-gun salute. They will then be shuttled to various towns for burial.

The repatriation has long been a sensitive issue often subject to prolonged negotiations, the BBC's Jon Donnison in Ramallah says.

The dead are considered martyrs by Palestinians, but terrorists by Israelis, and their remains are used as bargaining chips, he says.

Earlier this month, Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails agreed to end a mass hunger strike, which had been going on for more than two months.

More than 1,500 Palestinians had been refusing food to demand an improvement in conditions.

There were fears of a violent Palestinian backlash, had any of the inmates died.

Israeli vehicles are seen near the border with Jordan as Israeli troops exhume the remains of Palestinians, May 2012 Israel has been digging up remains near the border with Jordan for several days

The mother of one of the dead, Um Ramez Obeid, said the transfer made her "very happy".

"We have waited for this moment for 16 years. The more they talked about the deal to hand over the bodies, the more we hoped his body will be among them.

"God willing they will hand over his body to us, to be buried next to his father at the cemetery. We will visit him, even if he is dead and is in the grave, I feel that he is returned to me."

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said he hoped the "humanitarian gesture" would help get the peace process back on track.

"Israel is ready for the immediate resumption of peace talks without any preconditions whatsoever," he said.

Direct talks collapsed in December 2010 over Israel's refusal to stop building settlements in the occupied West Bank.

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