Israel blocks return of Palestinians' remains

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Palestinian officials have expressed outrage at Israel's 11th-hour decision to backtrack on a promise to hand over the remains of 84 Palestinians killed in the Middle East conflict in recent years.

The goodwill gesture turned sour yesterday when Israel's Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, blocked the transfer deal soon after it was made public because of suggestions that the remains might include two members of Hamas, the militant Islamist group that governs Gaza.

Defending the decision, Mr Barak said the transfer could harm stalled negotiations with Hamas to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who has been held in captivity in the Gaza Strip for the past five years. But the move provoked an angry response from Palestinian officials, who accused Israel of using the remains as a bargaining chip.

"The best way to release Shalit is to send the bodies back, to send a message that Israel is changing, and not by haggling at the market bazaar," said Husam Zomlot, an official with Fatah, the faction dominant in the West Bank.

The cancellation of the transfer is an embarrassment for Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly agreed to their removal months ago from an Israeli graveyard to the West Bank as a gesture of goodwill to the Palestinians ahead of Ramadan.

The remains are those of Palestinians killed in clashes or in suicide bombings since the 1967 Six Day War. Israeli media has suggested that at least two of the bodies included Hamas members, as well as Palestinians responsible for some of the most deadly attacks on Israeli soil, including Hanadi Jaradat, who blew herself up at a restaurant in Haifa in 2003, killing 21 people.