Israeli Ministers OK Opening Graves to Conduct DNA Tests Related to Abducted Yemenite Children Affair

Bill is meant to simplify the very complex bureaucratic procedure of exhuming graves, and facilitate families' search for answers to questions surrounding disappearance of children in early years of Israel

A protest demanding the recognition of the kidnapping of Yemenite children, Jerusalem June 21, 2017.
Emil Salman

Families from Yemen and other countries who want to open the graves of loved ones to conduct DNA tests on their remains would be allowed to do so through a special procedure, under a bill approved Sunday by the Ministerial Committee for Legislation.

The bill, which now goes to the Knesset for a preliminary vote, is meant to simplify the very complex bureaucratic procedure of exhuming graves, and facilitate the families’ search for answers to the questions surrounding the disappearance of children in the early years of the state.

The bill establishes a special procedure for exhuming and conducting DNA testing at state expense. Request for an exhumation under this procedure can be submitted by the parents, siblings, or children of siblings of a minor who died in Israel between 1948 and 1970.

The bill follows the release last year of previously classified documents relating to the cases of the missing children from the state archive. While the documents did not provide any “smoking gun” testifying to an organized effort to snatch children and give them to other families for adoption, as some of the families still claim, there was considerable information regarding the possible burial plots of some of the children.

“Until these protocols were opened, many families linked to this story didn’t know anything about the existence of a grave and certainly not its location,” said MK Nurit Koren (Likud), who submitted the bill. “The protocols revealed death certificates and burial plots. But how can the families know if this is true, if their sons and daughters are actually buried where it says?”

Koren, who heads a special committee looking into the matter, added, “Every day, my desk is flooded with letters from families who are crying to know what happened to their loved ones, which is how this bill on exhumation was born.”

Many families have begun legal proceedings to open graves for genetic testing, and have been finding it tough going. Earlier this month, for example, 15 families asked courts in Petah Tikva, Tel Aviv and Hadera to order that graves be opened. But according to Koren’s office, most of these requests are being refused, while other families have complained of bureaucratic and technical difficulties with obtaining court orders. One reason is that the courts have been relating to these requests as ordinary exhumation requests, without acknowledging their connection to this painful historic episode.

One such case now in the courts actually involves a family of Polish origin, and is being waged by Rachel Ben-Shimol, formerly Retig, whose little brother, Zvi, was hospitalized in Jaffa in 1950 and was never seen again. As in many of the cases of the Yemenite children, her parents never received a death certificate. It was only later that they learned he was listed as dead and had been buried in the children’s section of the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in Tel Aviv.

Even though the family has located the plot in which he is ostensibly buried, they have been unable to obtain a court order to exhume the grave. In the case, being heard in Tel Aviv Family Court, the state has been objecting to the request, claiming there’s no reason to open the grave when the Interior Ministry has recognized the child as dead.