Home US Local News Israel’s missing: Forensic workers struggle to put names to the dead

Israel’s missing: Forensic workers struggle to put names to the dead

by Hataf Finance
18 minutes read

Sets of remains are brought to the Abu Kabir morgue in Tel Aviv on Sunday. Forensic pathologists still have about 200 unidentified bodies to analyze. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)

TEL AVIV — The bodies keep arriving at the Abu Kabir morgue, but by now they’re rarely intact, or are burned beyond recognition. The scale and brutality of Hamas’s attack on southern Israel is still coming into focus here, more than three weeks later.

Of the more than 1,400 dead, there are about 200 bodies that forensic pathologists have been unable to identify because they were mutilated or incinerated. The damage is so severe, and the task so complex, that the Israeli government has turned to archaeologists to collect bone fragments from the sites of the attack.

“Like coal” is how Chen Kugel, director of the national forensic center, where the morgue is located, described many of the bodies he is now seeing.

More human remains are being retrieved daily by Israeli soldiers during military operations in Gaza, and by search-and-rescue teams combing the fields, homes and military barracks that were targeted in Hamas’s onslaught.

How Hamas broke through Israel’s border defenses during Oct. 7 attack

Sometimes, even with distinctive details obtained from autopsies, experts have struggled to identify the dead: a man with a metal plate in his forearm and a woman with a scar from a mastectomy are still among the unnamed. Then there are the foreign workers for whom the Israeli government has failed to find a DNA match. And the bodies that forensic pathologists initially believed were Israeli victims, but turned out to be Hamas militants.

On Sunday afternoon, another refrigerated truck pulled into the morgue, which sits off a main Tel Aviv thoroughfare. This time, it carried six bodies — three white body bags and three black ones, each with a serial number printed on a pink tag. Employees wheeled them in on stretchers, rearranging the previous truckload to make room.

“We’re now receiving the most difficult ones,” said Kugel.

Since the Oct. 7 attack, Israel has struggled to say how many people were killed and how many were abducted by Hamas militants. The numbers fluctuate almost daily based on intelligence and forensic reports. On Monday, Shani Louk, a dual German-Israeli citizen who many assumed was kidnapped from a music festival in southern Israel, was declared dead after authorities found a sliver of her skull.

Amid the confusion, the government has created a third category of victims: the missing.

Some of their bodies are almost certainly at the Abu Kabir morgue, or at one of the two other morgues just outside Tel Aviv run by the military and police. But many victims were so badly burned that extracting DNA from their bodies is virtually impossible; militants set fire to homes and barracks to kill those trapped inside. In other cases, entire families were murdered, making it difficult to find survivors to claim the dead.

Relatives are now being asked to donate their DNA at a newly opened family center. They’re also told to bring dental records and toothbrushes of the missing to assist with the identification effort.

On the first floor of Abu Kabir on Sunday, anthropologists worked in a small office, piecing together tiny bone fragments of one victim, likely an Israeli soldier. The fragments had been so badly charred that they were accidentally buried with another victim. It was a mistake that experts caught when they analyzed a CT scan of the deceased. The bodies were disinterred, and the identification process started anew.

“I’ve never seen this many bodies essentially cremated in a single event,” said Tal Simmons, a forensic anthropologist from Virginia Commonwealth University who was volunteering at the center and has worked in war zones around the world.

On the morning of Oct. 7, Doron Avigdori, a director of identification and forensic science for the Israeli police, was on a run when he got a call that someone had been injured in a rocket attack on southern Israel.

As Avigdori drove to the scene, more calls and texts arrived. It wasn’t a single rocket strike, he learned. It was a massacre.

Over the first few days, Avigdori, whose job is normally to analyze routine crime scenes, worked nonstop identifying victims of the attack. His colleagues delivered a pile of pine coffins that was almost immediately exhausted. A few hundred meters away, the military ran a parallel operation to identify dead soldiers. On one base, 15 service members sharing a room were incinerated.

Forensic experts wrote the official cause of death in their case files, which enumerated cases of torture and execution.

“Laceration of the throat,” said one.

“Gunshot wound through the cheek from 3 to 5 centimeters,” said another.

There was a decapitated 10-year-old; a man executed after his wrists were tied with electrical wire; bodies booby-trapped with grenades that prompted frantic evacuations of the morgue.

Initially, Avigdori and his colleagues used fingerprints, dental records, tattoos and medical implants to put names to the victims. A team from the Israeli military’s rabbinate worked to prepare the dead for burial, covering bodies in white shrouds. Family members came for small ceremonies after being informed that their loved ones had been identified; in many cases they were warned not to look.

“We didn’t want them to be left with those memories,” Avigdori said.

He and the other employees and volunteers tried to do as much work as they could without reflecting on the enormity of the loss.

“Otherwise, your defense mechanisms break down and you can no longer function, you can no longer do your job,” he said.

For almost everyone working there, it was small details that triggered their emotions.

“For me, it was the soldiers with manicured nails. That’s what made me cry,” said Shari, a volunteer with the military’s rabbinate.

Maayan, a military dentist, realized as she examined one victim that she had met him before, when he had needed a root canal months earlier. Both she and Shari spoke on the condition that only their first names be used, in line with military rules.

“I looked through his medical records and I saw my own handwriting,” Maayan said through tears.

Three weeks after the attack, the work has changed. Teams of search-and-rescue workers are combing the communities devastated by Hamas for any trace of human remains.

Last week, Simcha Graiman, a worker with Zaka, a volunteer Israeli rescue organization, scraped a scorched home in Kibbutz Holit for ashes. After some time, he found a tooth. Using dental records, forensic workers were able to identify the victim.

“There’s so little left. Every piece of ash could help,” Graiman said.

Other bodies are being recovered by Israeli soldiers during operations in Gaza. Some appear to have been dropped by militants as they fled across the border fence; others seem to have fallen from pickup trucks.

In a few cases, forensic workers have been able to determine from recovered bone fragments that people assumed to be hostages were actually deceased.

That’s how Israeli authorities came to declare Louk dead, after recovering the sliver of her skull. The rest of her body appears to be held by Hamas, according to a video released by militants.

As more of the missing are identified, Israelis are amending the posters of the hostages that dot Tel Aviv.

In black marker, friends and relatives have crossed out “kidnapped” and written “murdered.” On Monday, the word was scrawled on the poster bearing Louk’s face.

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