Search Bodies of Dead Soldiers 'Not at Any Price', Says Mother

There are certain seemingly immutable aspects of Memorial Day in Israel: the radio stations play sad songs, the siren's wail turns the nation into contemplative statues, and bereaved relatives visit the cemeteries where their family members lie buried.

Most of those who view the day as a time of personal, and not just national, mourning likely see the grave as a curse. But for parents like Edna Hakany, whose son's body parts were scattered across the southern Gaza Strip by the force of the blast that killed him almost exactly a year ago, his grave in the Ashdod military cemetery is in some ways a gift - albeit one that may have come at the expense of other soldiers' lives.

Edna's son Aviv, a 23-year-old Israel Defense Forces lieutenant who served as a tunnels officer in the Gaza division, was killed when Palestinian militants blew up an armored personnel carrier on the Philadelphi route along the Gaza-Egypt border that was transporting explosives meant for detonating weapons-smuggling tunnels. Aviv was one of five IDF soldiers killed in the May 12 attack, which took place about 24 hours after a roadside bomb blew up another explosives-laden APC, killing six soldiers in Gaza City.

As soldiers combed the sands of Rafah for their comrades' body parts two days after the blast that killed Aviv Hakany, Palestinian snipers killed one soldier guarding the search process and a second soldier attempting to treat and evacuate his comrade.

Afterward, when the IDF informed Edna that troops were still searching south Gaza for Aviv's remains, her first reaction was: "Not at any price."

"It's very important that my son returns home, but not at a price where I have to look another mother in the eyes and know that because of me or because of my son, she has to bury her son," said Hakany, a 45-year-old elementary-school teacher from the southern city of Ashdod.

At the time, televised footage of soldiers crawling in a potential killing zone to search for their fallen comrades' fingers or pieces of their skin stirred a nationwide debate over the wisdom of placing live soldiers in possibly mortal danger in order to collect the remains of dead ones.

Arguments in favor of the searches include the psychological need for families such as the Hakanys to have a grave to visit and the IDF's concern that troops' morale will decrease if they suspect the army won't do its utmost to bring their bodies home. If body parts are left in the field, the Palestinians may try to use them as bargaining chips, a ploy they attempted after collecting some of the limbs scattered by the first APC blast.

Perhaps at a more basic level, though, the Israeli compulsion to find, and then bury, as many parts of the body as possible derives from the need to identify the body beyond any doubt and from the traditional Jewish conception of burial as a way of honoring the dead.

"It's regarded as part of the responsibility to the human being that [a dead person's] body is treated with respect, that it's not thrown to the dogs to eat," said Rabbi Nachum Rabinovitch, head of the Birkat Moshe hesder yeshiva in Ma'aleh Adumim, a religious education institution that combines Torah study with military service.

But as important as a full burial may be, the price of another human life is too high, said Rabinovitch.

"Although [burying a corpse] is a fulfillment of a mandatory commandment in the Torah, it does not take precedence over the saving of lives," he said. "If there's a real danger to lives, one suspends that commandment."

The question, then, becomes what constitutes a "real danger."

According to IDF Chief Rabbi Brig. Gen. Yisrael Weiss, if the army had decided the soldiers searching for remains were clearly in danger of being killed, the searches would have been called off. As it was, said Weiss, the searches continued only until the national Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir announced it had finished identifying the bodies of all the soldiers.

On the Friday morning on which the two soldiers were killed in south Gaza, the soldiers sent by the army's rabbinate to conduct the searches called Weiss, he said, to tell him that their lives were in danger.

"We're in APCs; we hear them firing at us," they told him.

The chief rabbi informed the IDF chief of staff and the Southern District commander, who is in charge of the Gaza Strip. But the commander responded that he was in the field and had determined that" there is no certain danger to human life here," said Weiss.

"If there were, we wouldn't [have stayed there]," he said. "It's not logical to cause another person to die in order to search for someone who's dead." But, added Weiss, when the question is whether the troops should "take some risk" to search for remains, "the answer is yes."

Weiss is one of many who draw a distinction between endangering lives to collect the remains of soldiers like Aviv Hakany, and allowing the remains of civilians to be collected in a similarly life-threatening situation.

The difference, he said, is that if the soldiers knew the army might leave their bodies in the field, they wouldn't be completely motivated in their military service, and "we would essentially by damaging the security of the State of Israel."

"I think that we have an obligation to every soldier serving in the IDF who goes out to war that we will do everything in order to return him home," said Weiss. "We will do everything to keep him alive, but if God forbid he won't be alive, we will do everything to return his remains."

Rabinovitch, though, isn't convinced morale will suffer if the army refrains from endangering soldiers' lives. "I think that many, many soldiers understand that it's more important to save the lives of the living soldiers than to rescue the remains of the dead ones," he said.

The soldiers who came to speak to Edna Hakany at her home bore out Weiss' analysis, telling her the searches were so important to the troops' morale that they would even have refused a military order instructing them to halt their search for the remains.

Hakany told of speaking with soldiers who came to her house with cuts on their hands from hunting for body parts and told her it was understood they would continue to search, because "you don't abandon a friend, in any situation." She was glad the searches had continued, she said, once she saw the motivation of the soldiers themselves and found out that her son's body had been positively identified - the day after the two soldiers were killed in the search for the remains. The identification ended the four "nightmare" days when she could not be sure whether her son was alive or dead.

"Those four days, I didn't eat, I didn't sleep, I only drank water that they forced me to drink so I wouldn't dehydrate," said Hakany. "You always imagine, maybe it's not the end - maybe he's unconscious, or was kidnapped." But now she knows for sure, and has a grave where she can mourn her son, "a place to go and pray, to light a candle, to sit, to talk, to cry."

"I don't know how I could have functioned," said Hakany, "if they hadn't found him."