The Missing Israelis Who Never Return

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A retired member of the Israel Police elite anti-terror squad called the national emergency number around two years ago, to report a barefoot young man wandering around a highway. The officer was the last known person to see Shlomi Ariel alive. Ariel, 32, from the central-Israel town of Yehud, had left home early that morning in what his family described as a psychotic state. He walked a few kilometers, to a quarry near Shoham and Rosh Ha’ayin, and was never seen again.

The former officer’s report did not reach his family for 48 hours. During this time, they had mobilized a small army of people to search for him, and did everything they could – but as it turned out, they were looking in the wrong areas.

Around 500 Israeli families have similar stories. Unlike most of them, Ariel’s family had significant resources at its disposal. His sister Sima describes a wide-scale operation, made possible mainly due to connections and media support, involving people on horseback, trained dogs, jeeps and even a helicopter. They searched everywhere and checked every security camera in the area.

Unlike most of the families we interviewed, she praised the police, who went into action 48 hours after Ariel was reported missing. But even though the local police chief maintained close contact with the family and even took part in the search, experts in finding missing persons said that in addition to the delay of the police in responding to the missing-person report, the means they employed in the search were meager and unprofessional. Most of the other families can identify with that component of their ordeal.

Every year between 20 and 30 people in Israel are added to the list of people who have gone missing and have not been found. Some are young people with mental health issues, others are individuals “known to the police.” There are foreign tourists, people looking to disappear and make a new life for themselves, and some who were on their way home and never arrived. But for all of their families, their disappearance is an unsolved mystery that continues to haunt them.

A recent State Comptroller’s report and a Knesset committee debate last week revealed the extent of the phenomenon. Every year the police process around 5,000 reports on missing persons. About 99.99 percent of these cases are closed very quickly, usually when the missing person shows up at home. The rest join the list of the permanently missing.

According to last year’s State Comptroller’s report, at the time of publication there were 508 missing persons and 481 unidentified bodies. A joint project of the police and the Abu Kabir Institute of Forensic Medicine to identify the unidentified bodies and locate the missing resulted in the identification of 38 bodies between 2010 and August 2012.

At a meeting of the State Control Committee last week, chairman MK Amnon Cohen and others criticized the incomplete nature of the database of the missing persons and the unidentified bodies, which the report said often lacked DNA samples, fingerprints and photographs. While the comptroller’s report focuses mostly on the establishment of a genetic database, which was initiated three years ago by the police and Abu Kabir, and its funding, Cohen focused on the families who still hoped to find their loved ones alive. He said the police were insufficiently responsive and that the success of the search seemed to depend entirely on the good will of the local station chief.

The latter, at least, is largely true.

A senior police officer who was interviewed for this report on the condition of anonymity said he wanted to dispel the myth that the police only go into action after 24 hours have passed. Every case is examined and no one has instructions to wait 24 hours, he said. There are regulations defining cases that must be addressed immediately, including children under age 12, anyone over 70, sick or disabled people who need treatment or hospitalization, the mentally ill, members of the security forces and “any person whose life is at risk.”

In all other circumstances, the officer receiving the missing persons report must decide within 48 hours how to proceed.

A number of nonprofit organizations and private investigators have stepped in to fill the vacuum left by the police, as the families see it. Yekutiel “Mike” Ben Yaakov, a volunteer who heads a canine search unit, is one of the best known. He has plenty to say about the police’s handling of such cases and the lack of means available to police investigators. Ben Yaakov told the State Control Committee that the police respond with “extreme delay” to missing persons reports, and as a result waste valuable time. He spoke about the unprofessional use of dogs for tracking, a delay in using cellphone tracking and the ignoring of evidence such as footprints or indications from the dogs.

Last year Ben Yaakov’s team handled 20 cases, Some of the missing were found alive, others were found dead and the rest are still a mystery. In most cases the frustrated families turn to Ben Yaakov too late.

Maj. Gen. Menachem Yitzhaki, the head of the police investigations and intelligence branch, denied the accusations and told the committee of a case in which 1,000 police and volunteers searched Jerusalem’s Ramot Forest for a missing girl. There is an orderly process and it is conducted quickly, he said. He agreed the police need additional technical equipment, but said this is expensive. He noted that the police lack direct access to the army’s genetic database, adding that legislation for this was in the works.

If the person is not found or an unidentified body is not identified after five years, the case is archived. Regulations stipulate that after 50 years the file is to be removed. But no missing persons file has ever been closed in such a fashion in Israel, although the police admit that not everyone can be found, especially someone who doesn’t want to be found.

Missing persons in Israel.Credit: Israel Police
Israel Police search for missing soldier Eshel Zilberstein in 2012.Credit: Itzik Ben Malchi

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