JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that the state could not keep the bodies of Palestinian gunmen for use as bargaining chips to get back its own dead unless it enacted legislation permitting it to do so.
A three-justice panel ruled in favour of militants' families who petitioned to force Israeli authorities to return to them for burial the bodies of militant relatives killed in attacks on Israelis.
The court gave the state six months to enact legislation if it wanted to keep the bodies.
Israel has said it was holding the bodies to help it effect the return the remains of the two Israeli soldiers killed in the Gaza Strip in 2014 and two Israeli civilians, whose whereabouts are unknown and whom Israel believes are alive and being held in the enclave by Palestinian Islamist group Hamas.
But in a majority ruling, the court said the bodies were being held without authorisation because there was no law on the Israeli statute books to regulate their being kept.
"It should be emphasised that Israel, a state governed by the rule of law, cannot hold bodies for the purposes of negotiations while there is no specific, clear law in place permitting it to do so," part of the ruling's summary said.
Israel has in the past carried out swaps of prisoners and of militants' remains with Hamas and with the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah in exchange for Israeli soldiers and their remains.
(Writing by Ori Lewis Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)