Skip To Content

Battle over bodies: Israel is holding a dead Palestinian prisoner as leverage for Gaza hostages

Walid Daqqa, who died of cancer at 62, was a ‘uniting national figure’ for Palestinians. Now he’s a bargaining chip.

JERUSALEM — It’s been nearly three months since Walid Daqqa died of cancer near the end of his lengthy term in Israeli prison, but his family has yet to receive his remains for burial.

Daqqa, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who spent 38 years behind bars for commanding a group that abducted and killed an Israeli soldier, was already an icon as the longest serving of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, and for writing novels about freedom while behind bars. Now he is a symbol of a new front in Israel’s war against Hamas and other Palestinian militants: the battle over dead bodies.

With up to half of the 120 remaining Israeli hostages in Gaza presumed dead, Israel’s leaders have refused to relinquish Daqqa’s corpse because it could be valuable in negotiations with Hamas. In court papers, the government declared Daqqa’s a “very exceptional case” and said “the decision to hold the body of the terrorist was taken on the grounds of the prisoners and the mission, which holds special and significant weight at this time.”

Daqqa’s wife, Sanaa Salameh, and Adalah, an Arab-Israeli legal center, have appealed to Israel’s High Court to overturn the government’s decision. The next hearing is scheduled for July 15.

“Their goal is revenge and provocation,” his wife, Sanaa Salameh, who met Daqqa after his imprisonment, told me in a phone interview. “This is mafia, not democracy.”

Israel has for many years had a policy of holding as bargaining chips the bodies of Palestinian prisoners from the occupied West Bank or the Gaza Strip, maintaining several cemeteries for that purpose. But Daqqa and a handful of others who have died in custody since the Hamas terror attack of Oct. 7 are the first Israeli citizens to be subjected to such treatment.

“It’s unprecedented that a state anywhere in the world decides to hold hostage the body of a citizen in order to release another citizen,” said Suhad Bishara, head of Adalah’s legal department. “Family members’ rights are being violated; the right to dignity, to bury loved ones, to have a grave to visit.”

The policy, she added, shows that Israel treats members of its Arab minority as “second-class citizens whether they are alive or dead.”

Bodies and politics

Both Islam and Judaism place great value on bringing their dead to a swift burial in accord with religious rites. Hamas has in the past tried to exploit Israeli sensitivities over this commandment, refusing, for example, to return the remains of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, soldiers killed in battle inside Gaza during the summer-long war of 2014. Israel’s top general, Herzi Halevi, has meanwhile said the military is willing to risk soldiers’ lives in order to retrieve corpses from captivity.

But some veteran analysts of the conflict say holding Daqqa is unlikely to help.

“This won’t be the key to a deal,” Amir Avivi, a former deputy commander of the Israel Defense Forces’ Gaza Brigade, said in an interview. “What interests Hamas is prisoners who are alive.”

Herzi Halevi, chief of staff of the IDF, said the army is willing to risk soldiers’ lives in order to retrieve corpses from captivity. Photo by GIL COHEN-MAGEN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Gershon Baskin, an Israeli columnist and activist who helped negotiate the 2011 release of Gilad Shalit, agreed that “Hamas is not interested in negotiating for bodies.”

“We offered bodies for bodies, and Hamas said no,” Baskin told me. They’ve never negotiated bodies. “They say the bodies are buried in Palestine anyway and their souls are in heaven because they are martyrs.”

He called the government’s decision “stupid and evil,” blaming “foolish politicians who are more interested in an image than in the reality of changing people’s lives.”

According to court documents, Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, made the official decision to withhold Daqqa’s body on June 6, two months after he died from bone cancer in Israel’s Shamir Medical Center. It was later approved at a security cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Israeli news reports suggest that the most extreme members of the far-right government were strong advocates for keeping the corpse.

“To my regret Walid Daqqa concluded his life with a natural death and not according to my vision through which Daqqa would have died according to the death penalty for terrorists,” Itamar Ben-Gvir, the minister of national security, was quoted as saying by Israel’s Walla news agency.

The Israeli newspaper Maariv reported last month that Bezalel Smotrich, the finance minister, offered a gruesome proposal during the cabinet meeting. “We have to put the corpses in a wagon,” he said, according to the newspaper, “and tow it through the center of the city like they used to do in the Bible so that [Arabs] will see and be afraid.”

Moshe Solomon, deputy speaker of the Knesset, also supports the policy, arguing that releasing the bodies would only lead to mass funerals where people like Daqqa would be venerated as heroes.

“We are a people that sanctifies life, that honors the dead,” he said. “But when the other side seeks to destroy us and makes celebrations on the funeral day of a terrorist, we can’t allow it to continue.”

A hero to some

Moshe Tamam, the 19-year-old IDF soldier murdered in 1984. Photo by YouTube screenshot/ Times of Israel

Daqqa was born in Baqa al-Gharbiyye, an Arab town near the Green Line separating 1948 Israel from the West Bank territory it seized in the 1967 War. As an adult, he worked as a housepainter in Tel Aviv and Eilat, and was active in the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which the United States later designated a terrorist group.

He was convicted for orchestrating the 1984 murder of Moshe Tamam, a 19-year-old Israeli soldier who was taken from a Tel Aviv bus station as he returned from an off-duty weekend with his girlfriend in Tiberias. For the Israeli right, Daqqa became an enduring symbol of Arab cruelty.

But Palestinians saw Daqqa, 62, as a symbol of the injustice of Israel’s occupation, and a voice not only for the estimated 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli prisons but all those living in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. He denied involvement in the abduction and murder throughout his life, and for many years sought a retrial; in 2012, then-Prime Minister Shimon Peres reduced his sentence from life to 38 years.

In his literary work, Daqqa wrote of the struggle to achieve liberation of the mind despite being in captivity, on both the personal and national levels.

“He was a uniting national figure for all Palestinians,” said Nour Odeh, a political analyst and former spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority. “Intellectually speaking, he is a national figure who didn’t cease interacting with society when behind bars. He is seen as having given the ultimate sacrifice, the years of his life.”

His admirers include some on the far left in Israel. Anat Matar, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Tel Aviv University who corresponded with Daqqa for many years, eulogized him on Facebook as a “dear and beloved friend” and “endless source of inspiration.” (The post triggered calls for her dismissal, including from Israel’s education minister, Yoav Kisch, who said he was “deeply revolted” by what he termed “public admiration for terrorists with blood on their hands.”)

A widow’s grief

Salameh, who met Daqqa during a prison visit in 1996 and married him three years later, sees the withholding of the body as a continuation of measures taken by Israel against him while he was alive, including denying conjugal sessions and not releasing him after his cancer diagnosis. Daqqa had two years tacked onto his 37-year sentence for murder for smuggling cell phones.

Sanaa and Milad protest for the release of Walid’s body. Courtesy of Facebook

The couple managed to smuggle some of Daqqa’s sperm out of the prison and Salameh, who is 54, gave birth to a daughter, Milad, in 2020.

“They always punished him, suppressed him, isolated him, especially after the birth of Milad,” Salameh told me, adding that she thinks such treatment contributed to a deterioration of his health.

“We don’t have much hope in the court but we will continue fighting,” she said. “We want to bring him home and close this chapter so that Milad can see her father and part from him properly.”

Her comments echo those of relatives of the Israelis whose dead bodies are stuck in Gaza. One is Udi Goren, a cousin of Tal Chaimi who died battling Hamas invaders at Kibbutz Nir Yitzhak on Oct. 7. Chaimi, who was 41, left behind three children, twins who were 9 at the time of the attack and a 6-year-old.

“The family has no closure,” Goren said in an interview.

Goren, a travel photographer and teacher, said he would support an exchange of bodies if it did not violate Israeli or international law. But, he cautioned, “We need to make sure we don’t lower ourselves down to their level because we are a sovereign modern democracy and not a terrorist organization.”

A message from our editor-in-chief Jodi Rudoren

We're building on 127 years of independent journalism to help you develop deeper connections to what it means to be Jewish today.

With so much at stake for the Jewish people right now — war, rising antisemitism, a high-stakes U.S. presidential election — American Jews depend on the Forward's perspective, integrity and courage.

—  Jodi Rudoren, Editor-in-Chief 

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.