Palestinian Studies

2020 Workshop

Randa Wahbe

PhD Candidate in Anthropology, Harvard University

Martyrs as State Property: The Cemeteries of Numbers as a Case Study in Body Commodification 

A Palestinian martyrs’ body is claimed by many: their family, their comrades, political factions, the national liberation movement, and its most sinister proprietor: the Israeli state. For decades, Israel has stolen and interred hundreds of Palestinian corpses in clandestine gravesites, known as maqaber al-arqam (the cemeteries of numbers) by Palestinians and the “cemeteries of the enemy dead” by Israelis. These gravesites, located within closed military zones, are lodged into the Palestinian collective memory as a form of dispossession that extends even in death. Although the practice of withholding bodies temporarily halted after the second Intifada, it resurfaced in 2015 during the uprising in Jerusalem. Ever since, post-mortem detention has slowly become legally sanctioned by the Israeli state. While the cemeteries of numbers have been a public secret for decades, in November 2019, a panel of high court judges ruled that the Israeli police has the right to withhold bodies of Palestinians to use as bargaining chips, reaffirming the exploitation of the Palestinian dead as a tool in the Israeli settler colonial enterprise. 

The work of Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Suhad Daher-Nashif are fundamental to illustrating the role of the Palestinian dead within a settler-colonial framework – particularly in the ways bodies are criminalized (Shalhoub-Kevorkian 2013, 2015) and how their “suspended deaths” (Daher-Nashif 2018) when confiscated by the Israeli state halts the mourning process for families. By taking inspiration from indigenous feminist theorization on how the bodies of indigenous women become extensions of territory (Yuval-Davis and Anthias 1989, Goeman 2013); my paper asks: where does the demarcation of property extend into the realm of the corporeal? The constant bartering between Palestinian families and the Israeli state in their quest to repatriate their dead raises inquiries on how bodies, like land, become a form of “property” to be confiscated by the settler-colonial state. 

Using Israeli judicial decisions and case law regarding the cemeteries of numbers from the first petition in 1984 to the present day, this paper seeks to understand the ways that Palestinian bodies are seen as commodities by the Israeli state. Further using ethnographic interviews, this paper will illustrate the psychological ramifications on families and loved ones as they battle the state, as well as the material consequences perpetuated by not receiving confirmation of their loved ones’ death, such as rupturing traditional forms of land inheritance. 

The growing number of Palestinians arrested and held in captivity, as well as the resurfacing of the policy to withhold bodies of Palestinians point to a pattern in which bodies - both living and dead – are becoming an important territory of conquest as property of the state. By theoretically expanding the notion of property and territory to bodies, this paper will show how those interred in the cemeteries of numbers have become commodified forms of capital for political negotiating and bargaining. 

Randa M. Wahbe is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at Harvard University. At present, she is developing an archive of Palestinian martyrs confiscated by the Israeli army and interred in restricted military zones known as maqaber al-arqam (the cemeteries of numbers). Her project bridges indigenous methodologies, oral history and critical archival curation to understand questions related to state surveillance, settler colonialism, and sovereignty. Her research is supported by fellowships from the Wenner Gren Foundation and the Social Science Research Council.

Randa also serves as an executive board member of Insaniyyat: The Society of Palestinian Anthropologists, a policy member for Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, and a steering committee member for the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. Before starting her PhD, Randa headed the International Advocacy Unit at Addameer Prisoners Support and Human Rights Association in Ramallah, Palestine. Randa also has an MPH in Epidemiology from Columbia University and BA in International Development with a minor in Public Health from UCLA.