For the first time since it opened in 1954, on Monday Israel’s National Center of Forensic Medicine (Abu Kabir) in Jaffa allowed reporters to see and photograph the dead bodies inside.
The stench of death and putrefaction was overwhelming on Abu Kabir’s bottom floor where bodies that await specialized examination and bone fragments are unloaded for DNA extraction or study by anthropologists.
Some of the journalists couldn’t stomach viewing the horrific scenes in the autopsy rooms as the center’s teams worked reverently and professionally, burying their emotions for the moment.
Despite how intensively Abu Kabir’s staff are working as they try to establish the identity of the most degraded remains of the mass-murderous Hamas attack on southern Israeli communities on October 7, it was felt important to make room in their tight quarters for journalists to document these atrocities for the world to see.
There are still hundreds of unidentified bodies, and forensic experts at Abu Kabir and from the IDF and police are working around the clock to provide definitive answers for the victim’s families.
Dr. Hagar Mizrahi told the journalists that as of Monday morning, 959 body bags containing remains in various states had arrived at the IDF’s Shura base near Ramle and 504 victims had been positively identified. There were still 297 bodies or bags of remains unidentified, most of which were expected to be transferred to Abu Kabir for advanced forensic examination.
At least 1,300 Israelis — the majority of them civilians — have been killed and at least 199 have been taken hostage by Hamas in Gaza. (Hamas claims an additional 50 Israelis are being held by other groups.)
“They [deniers] say we are faking it and that we are working on the charred remains of dogs. No! These are the remains of human beings,” said Dr. Chen Kugel, head of the National Center of Forensic Medicine as he showed graphic evidence on a screen.
Kugel showed a photo of a charred mass approximately the length of an adult torso. Then he showed the CT scan of the same mass, pointing out two spines and two sets of ribs. Based on their size, they belong to an adult and a child who were fused in an embrace. There was a wire wrapped around them.
“The single mercy is that we are finding soot in victims’ tracheas, which means that they likely passed out from smoke inhalation and probably were not conscious as they were being burned alive in their safe rooms,” Kugel said.
Pieces of people are mixed in together with one another. It’s a crematorium situation
Large heavy-duty plastic bags filled with small charred bone fragments seen by reporters on screen and in one of the Abu Kabir labs are all that is left of other victims. Many bags contain the remains of more than one person, and it is the job of Abu Kabir’s experts to determine how many victims are there and who they are.
“Pieces of people are spread out in different places and mixed in together with one another. It’s a crematorium situation,” Kugel said, evoking memories of the Holocaust.
“I have been a forensic physician for over 30 years and this is the most horrific situation I have ever had to deal with,” he said.
Kugel reported that many bodies had defensive gunshot wounds in their hands. One had its hands zip-tied behind its back and was shot in the back at absolute zero range. The gun’s tip had been put in direct contact with the victim’s body.
“We also have bodies coming in without heads, but we can’t definitely say it was from beheadings. Heads can also be blown off due to explosive devices, missiles, and the like,” Kugel said.
Since October 7, all bodies and remains have initially been brought to the Shura IDF camp, which can handle the immense number of body bags better than the small Abu Kabir. But even at Shura, the bodies must be stored in shipping containers.
Kugel said that at first, the procedure was to process each body according to Interpol protocol, which includes registration of objects found on the body, dental examination, fingerprinting, external examination of the body, and a full-body CT scan.
“But we abandoned that protocol because with so many bodies it was just taking too long, and public sentiment was that we needed to identify bodies faster so they could be buried as quickly as possible according to tradition,” Kugel said.
The decision was made to focus primarily on DNA. Samples taken (preferably from tissue rather than blood) at Shura are all forwarded to Abu Kabir for profile extraction. In cases where a profile is achieved, it is sent on to the national DNA database at Israel Police’s headquarters in Jerusalem. First-degree family members of the missing or presumed dead have been asked to provide DNA samples to the police.
If a match is made between the profile sent from Abu Kabir and information in the national database, an identification can be made and family members informed.
“So far we have tested 750 samples and with most of them we achieved a match,” said Dr. Nurit Bublil, head of the lab at the National Center of Forensic Medicine.
It has been relatively easy for the IDF to identify its fallen using military DNA
As of Tuesday, the IDF has revealed the names of 299 IDF soldiers who have been killed since October 7. It has been relatively easy for the IDF to identify its fallen using military DNA, fingerprint, and dental records, but it has proven harder to do so with civilian victims.
A high proportion of the civilian remains are either severely degraded or charred, making it extremely hard to extract DNA.
“Human biology simply can’t withstand burning,” Bublil said.
“With burning victims, bone fragments and teeth may remain, but it is difficult to extract DNA from them to produce a profile,” she said.
Furthermore, even when it is possible to extract the DNA and arrive at a profile after death, there may not always be genetic evidence from when a person was alive with which to compare it.
“We have had to get creative. For instance, we were dealing with the remains of some unidentified babies. The Health Ministry has a list of missing people, and people from the ministry went to the hospitals where the babies on the list were born. They were able to get the cards with the blood samples taken from the babies at birth for clinical diagnosis,” Bublil said.
By extracting the DNA from the blood on those hospital cards, it was possible to positively identify the dead bodies of six infants on the missing persons list.
Kugel said that Abu Kabir and its partners are turning over every stone to get the information they need to get their job done. They’ve asked hospitals, health maintenance organizations, and the National Transplant Center to share records.
The hundreds of bodies and bags of remains that are yet to be identified are arriving at Abu Kabir in batches of 40. Israel has only seven licensed forensic physicians. In normal times, Abu Kabir handles around 2,000 cases a year. By law, all deaths not by natural causes must be investigated there. These include murder, manslaughter, deaths involving sexual assault, and suicide.
Volunteers from various medical professions within Israel have offered to help handle the unprecedented and tragic current load of cases. Forensic medicine volunteer teams have also arrived from the US, New Zealand, and Switzerland.
Bublil spoke about usually being able to disassociate herself emotionally from her work so that she can get on with it, but said it has been much harder than usual to do so now.
Kugel said that all of the staff and volunteers are receiving counseling to cope with the situation. There were moments when both he and Bublil teared up while speaking with reporters.
Bublil shared a moment when she could not manage to emotionally disassociate herself while working.
It hit me hard right then that this could have been me, my kids, or my parents
“Yesterday, one of the bodies from a kibbutz in the south came in with an envelope of personal items, including a very popular cookbook in Israel. It was covered in blood. I like to cook and use that book all the time. It hit me hard right then that this could have been me, my kids, or my parents,” Bublil said.
As someone who is dealing with the horrifying physical evidence of the mass slaughter of Israelis by Hamas, she said there is something she wants the world to know.
“They genuinely enjoyed the killing of innocent people. They enjoyed it. They celebrated it. They are monsters, not human beings. They showed mercy on nothing and no one,” Bublil said.
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