Israel Agrees to Open Graves of Missing Yemenite Children for DNA Testing

Move comes in response to ongoing campaign by families who suspect their children were kidnapped and sold for adoption

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

The state has given official consent for the first time to the opening of graves which are said to hold the remains of children, belonging to Yemenite families, who disappeared in the fifties. The step is meant to enable DNA tests to be conducted to determine whether there is a genetic link between those buried there and the families searching for their offspring, and ascertain whether their children were indeed buried there without their knowledge.  

The state prosecutor’s office stated that it was acceding to the request of the families to open the graves because of, among other things, the public outcry over the saga of missing Yemenite children and the campaign to get to the truth of the matter.  

“The decision was made in light of the public importance of getting to the truth regarding the death and burial of minors from Yemen, the east and the Balkans, whose deaths were reported to family members in the years after the founding of the state,” the office stated. The committee which oversees the maintenance of dignity for the dead – which operates under the auspices of the Chief Rabbinate Council – approved the decision.
Families of Yemenite origin have filed a number of independent lawsuits demanding that their children’s graves be opened in order to conduct DNA tests. Some of families managed to find the plots where their children are allegedly buried, despite having received only partial information from the state over the years regarding the date of death, the name of the cemetery and the plot number.

Until now the state has opposed the opening of the graves and put forth bureaucratic red tape which has hindered the families’ efforts. The state has treated these private lawsuits as part of a historical, national saga that is part of a broader, strategic issue. The prosecutor’s announcement on Tuesday is therefore a significant change in the state’s position on the issue, and is likely to pave the way for opening additional graves across Israel.

In response to the court petition by an organization representing Yemenite and other families whose children disappeared, the state prosecutor agreed to a request to open 18 graves — 12 of them in Petah Tikva, five in Tel Aviv and one in Pardes Hanna. The Achim Vekayamim association, which has led the fight of Yemenite families on the issue, welcomed the development, expressing hope that the process of opening the graves and conducting the genetic tests “will be done with full transparency and cooperation with the families.” 

Yemenite children at an absorption center in Rosh Ha'ayin, 1949.
Teddy Brauner/GPO

Still, the NGO added: “We want to make it clear that this move is partial and limited, and is not enough. We demand the government of Israel take responsibility in the name of the state for the kidnapping of the children, and to pledge to take practical steps to reveal the truth in this frightening scandal. Only accepting responsibility and revealing the truth in full will bring healing to the families, to society and all of Israel.”
The struggle waged by Yemenite families, whose children disappeared shortly after Israel’s founding, has prompted the state to take several steps in recent years. First, it opened classified archival documents dealing with the findings of an investigative committee that looked into the affair. Opening the archives a year ago did not solve the mystery of the children’s disappearance, but added a lot of historic information regarding the affair.

Family representatives have recently negotiated with the Prime Minister’s Office over publication of an official apology by the state and compensation. 

A state investigative commission, which reviewed the affair and published its findings in 2001, didn’t find proof that Yemenite children were kidnapped, as their families claim, and concluded that most of them died of diseases. Still, the families have proved that they didn’t receive any official documentation of the death of their loved ones and their place of burial, and that if indeed they had died and were buried, this was done without the families knowing about it in real time and sometimes not even for decades.  

The families continue to claim that most of the information in the affair is being hidden, and some among them assert that various criminal figures joined forces with authorities, among them social welfare and medical officials, to kidnap their children and sell them for adoption in Israel and abroad. 

The demand of the families to open the graves, which has now received a green light from the state, is an attempt to clarify whether some of the children who had disappeared did indeed die of diseases, as the authorities have claimed, and were buried in various cemeteries across the country. In order to do so, the families will have to give DNA samples and compare them to the samples to be taken from the remains of the bodies located in the graves. Because of factors like time and soil erosion, it is still unsure whether such tests will be possible and how accurate they will be.

Haaretz revealed last June that in some cemeteries, the graves in which Yemenite children were apparently buried were covered over by newer graves.

Last summer MK Nurit Koren (Likud), chairwoman of the Special Committee on the Affair of the Disappearance of Yemenite, Mizrahi and Balkan Children, submitted a bill to help families locate their loved ones’ graves to make it easier to open the graves and conduct DNA tests. 
Attorney Rami Zubari, one of the leaders of the Yemenite families, opened up a number of graves 20 years ago in Petah Tikva’s Segula Cemetery. “We found 22 skeletons in 10 graves,” he told Haaretz. He said he found no correlation between the families whose children were supposedly buried in the graves and the remains in those graves.