Between Forensics, Religion and Politics: How Israel Determines a Missing Soldier Is Dead

In the absence of a body, forensic findings in the field are only part of the evidence used by the IDF to pronounce a soldier's death.

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The grave of Lt. Hadar Goldin at his funeral in Kfar Sava, August 3, 2014.
The grave of Lt. Hadar Goldin at his funeral in Kfar Sava, August 3, 2014.Credit: Reuters

Lt. Hadar Goldin, a squad commander in the Givati Brigade’s reconnaissance company, was declared dead only a day and a half after the tunnel attack near Rafah. Just past midnight Saturday night, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, a distant relative of Goldin, arrived at the family’s home in Kfar Sava, accompanied by the head of the IDF Personnel Directorate, Maj. Gen. Orna Barbivai, and the chief military rabbi, Brig. Gen. Rafi Peretz.

The army officials discussed with the family the forensic evidence recovered from the scene, which confirmed Goldin’s death.

Even before the confirmation, the army’s assumption was that Goldin had been hit in the ambush by the Hamas team that killed the company’s commander, Maj. Benaya Sarel, and Staff Sgt. Liel Gidoni. The evidence found in the tunnel after the incident included some of Goldin’s personal gear and biological findings linked to him beyond doubt. The evidence indicated that Goldin had sustained serious injuries to vital organs and could not have survived.

The main tool used by forensic medicine to identify a soldier and pronounce his death in such circumstances is DNA testing. The testing of body tissue and fluids found in the field not only lets forensic investigators identify the soldier, it lets them establish the organ from which the evidence came. In this case, the DNA testing led to the conclusion that there was no way Goldin could have been captured alive.

Forensic findings are only part of the evidence used by rabbis in the Israel Defense Forces, whose authorization is needed to pronounce a soldier dead. The military rabbinate also examines medical reports and operational debriefings.

In the case of Goldin, a special panel headed by Peretz, the chief military rabbi, also examined the details of the battle in Rafah, in which the officer had been snatched by Hamas fighters into a tunnel. The IDF’s working assumption, even before the end of the investigation, was that Hamas would try to snatch a soldier, dead or alive, for negotiating purposes. In this case, it was concluded that even if Goldin had been taken alive, there was no way Hamas doctors could have kept him alive.

According to military sources, Hamas is well aware of the IDF’s technological and forensic capabilities; therefore, the group tried to eliminate evidence from the battlefield in an attempt to increase the uncertainty on the Israeli side.

In Goldin’s case, the IDF retrieved some of his remains, which were brought for burial. This was not the case two weeks ago with the death of 1st Sgt. Oron Shaul, who was declared “a soldier killed in action whose burial site is unknown.”

Shaul was one of the soldiers killed when a Golani Brigade armored personnel carrier was blown up in Gaza’s Shujaiyeh neighborhood two weeks ago. The bodies of six other soldiers were recovered from the vehicle and identified, but the military failed to identify Shaul’s. His family was notified that he had been classified as missing, but a week later they received the news that he was dead.

“In Oron’s case no body parts were found, but a clear conclusion about his death was reached,” said Rabbi Yisrael Weiss, the chief military rabbi from 2000 to 2006.
The chief military rabbi is the final authority on the status of a dead IDF soldier. The task becomes complex when the bodies of soldiers are not recovered, little forensic evidence remains, and there are no eyewitnesses.

In the absence of a body, the level of proof required by the rabbis to pronounce a death is often higher than that of the legal system. It’s also sometimes different from the conclusions reached by the intelligence services. There are also political considerations and the wishes of the families to be taken into consideration.

Only six IDF soldiers are still classified as missing. They include Zechariah Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman, who were reported taken captive in the 1982 Lebanon war, and air force navigator Ron Arad, taken prisoner when his Phantom fighter jet went down in southern Lebanon. In these cases, the lack of physical remains and opposition from the families prevented the IDF from pronouncing the soldiers dead, despite intelligence assessments that they were no longer alive.

Since the War of Independence, 190 Israeli soldiers remain classified as “dead, place of burial unknown.” The IDF’s Eitan unit continues to search for their remains using technology and any new scrap of evidence to identify the graves of unknown soldiers or bodies unearthed around the country and across the border.

The halakhic matter of pronouncing a death becomes even more difficult in the case of married soldiers. Jewish law requires a higher threshold of evidence for releasing a woman from the status of agunah, when she cannot remarry before her husband’s death has been proved.

Special rabbinical courts are convened and lengthy sessions are held to review all available evidence before a missing married man is pronounced dead. Such a court was convened following September 11, 2001, to pronounce the deaths of married Jewish men presumed killed in the attack on the World Trade Center.

In the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, nearly 1,000 married Israeli soldiers were killed, mostly reservists who had been hastily called up. The circumstances of their deaths, the lack of proper identification processes and their internment in temporary battlefield cemeteries led to a large number of questionable cases.

The military rabbinate convened a special court at Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s Tel Aviv apartment. In the space of two months, it examined every case until every widow was notified of her husband’s death.

In the case of the Har Dov attack in October 2000, when Hezbollah ambushed an Israeli patrol on the Lebanese border, IDF needed a year to conclude that the three missing soldiers, Benny Avraham, Omar Souad and Adi Avitan, were “dead, place of burial unknown.” Hezbollah continued to insist that the soldiers were alive until their bodies were brought for burial in a prisoner exchange on January 29, 2004.

In July 2006, triggering the Second Lebanon War, the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were snatched by Hezbollah from their jeep. The IDF did not classify their status until the bodies were returned two years later. For reasons still unclear, a forensic report with the conclusion that they could not have survived the missile attack was withheld from the cabinet and the families until after the war.

“Even when we don’t have physical evidence, there are halakhic parameters that allow us to pronounce death without a body or other remains,” said Weiss, the former chief military rabbi. These parameters can include eavesdropping on enemy combatants, probabilities in battlefield situations and quantities of body fluids found on the scene.

“In the case of the Har Dov attack, “I ruled after a year that they were no longer alive based on these parameters,” Weiss said.

During Operation Protective Edge, the military rabbinate has dealt with two cases of a lack of clear evidence. Unlike previous operations and wars, the families were not kept in the dark very long.

“We always tried to provide speedier answers. In this case I advised the chief rabbi to work day and night and not let the incident remain unsolved,” Weiss said. "Beyond the importance of the answer to the families, as quickly as possible, there is also the importance vis-a-vis the enemy, who knows we’re aware the soldiers are no longer alive, so the bargaining-chip value decreases.”

According to Weiss, the improvements over the years are based on technology investments.

“As chief military rabbi, we invested many millions in advanced technology with the sole objective of creating a fast and reliable process of identification — by using fingerprints, X-rays, dental records and DNA, as well as cameras that can beam evidence from the field in a very short time to the chief rabbi’s desk,” he said.

“Today, even when the dead soldier is still in the field, his family can be notified. It’s a system designed to identify casualties as quickly as possible, and I’m not aware of any other military in the world going to these lengths.”

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