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HOUSTON - In an unusual move yesterday, NASA agreed to allow an Israel expert to participate in the examination and identification process with regard to the body parts found over the past two days in the area in which the Columbia space shuttle crashed to earth.

The Israel Defense Forces' attache in the United States, Major General Moshe Ivri-Sukenik, noted that he had stressed to the NASA representatives the significance Israel and the Jewish religion placed on the identification of the body parts of astronaut Ilan Ramon and his burial in Israel, and therefore Israel wished to play an active role in the search and identification operation.

It remains unclear how the astronauts' bodies will be identified, but NASA does have DNA samples of the seven, together with additional identification signs that could assist in the process.

Yesterday NASA disclosed for the first time that body parts had been found in the area of the crash site in eastern Texas. NASA did not comment on the condition of the remains found and whether it was possible to tell to which astronaut they belonged.

Responsibility for locating and identifying the body of the Israeli astronaut also falls on Israel's military representation in the United States in that Ilan Ramon was a colonel in the Israel Air Force.

The process of declaring Ramon a fallen soldier will take place in accordance with the existing IDF regulations, which also relate to cases in which the body of a fallen soldier is not found. Nevertheless, Israeli representatives emphasized yesterday the supreme importance placed on locating Ramon's body.

Amos Harel adds: Last night, the IDF Rabbinate sent an expert with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel to Houston to help in the process of identifying body parts of the Columbia space shuttle astronauts.

If the body of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon is not found, the IDF is likely to declare him a fallen soldier whose place of burial is unknown. The IDF's chief rabbi, Major General Israel Weiss, is authorized to make such a decision. In such a case, there will be no funeral, but an official ceremony of sorts would likely take place.

The IDF is still delaying its decision on how to mark the death of the Columbia crew until Ramon's status is determined. Discussions on the possibility of posthumously promoting Ramon to the rank of brigadier general are also still underway.

"Ilan was our emissary up there," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said yesterday. "He was the clear representative of the beautiful Israel, the IDF and the air force; and gave appropriate and emotional expression to this on every occasion."

Meanwhile, Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau yesterday issued the following statement: "The people of Israel saw Ilan Ramon as a symbol of national stature, and everyone in Israel viewed him as a personal emissary, a man of brotherhood and pride, a man who glorified the name of the State of Israel and Jewish tradition."

Rabbi Lau ruled that considering the circumstances, there was enough information to declare that Ilan Ramon had perished, and that his wife was free to remarry, even though his body had not been found.

"To our deep sorrow, the State of Israel has known many tragedies in the past, where many were killed and declared fallen, but their burial places remain unknown. This was the case with the destruction of the [Israel Navy ship] Eilat in October 1967, the loss of the [Israel Navy submarine] Dakar in 1968, and the 2001 World Trade Center tragedy. In all those cases, the widows received permission to remarry."