Israel approves exhumations of 17 Yemenite children presumed dead

Israel approves exhumations of 17 Yemenite children presumed dead

Families will be allowed to conduct DNA tests to determine whether authorities in the 1950s were telling them the truth

Illustrative: Children being airlifted from Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet, in front of an Alaskan Airlines plane. (Courtesy AJM)
Illustrative: Children being airlifted from Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet, in front of an Alaskan Airlines plane. (Courtesy AJM)

Israeli authorities on Tuesday approved a request by families of children who went missing decades ago in the so-called Yemenite children affair, and will issue a warrant allowing the exhumation of remains from 17 graves for the purpose of genetic testing.

Since the 1950s, more than 1,000 families — mostly immigrants from Yemen, but also dozens from the Balkans, North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries — have alleged that their children were systematically kidnapped from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad.

Lawmakers recently approved a bill allowing the families of children who went missing in 1948-1970 and were later declared dead by the authorities to seek court approval to open the graves for DNA authentication.

“The decision has been made with attention to the public importance of discovering the truth in the matter of the death and burial of minors who came from Yemen, the Orient and the Balkans, whose families were informed of their death in the years following Israel’s establishment,” the state attorney’s office said in a statement.

MK Nurit Koren leads an event on the “Yemenite Children Affair,” in the Israeli parliament on June 21, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“It should be noted that the step has been approved by the Chief Rabbinate’s committee on the dignity afforded the dead, subject to conditions that enable the exhumation of the Yemenite children and the conducting of genetic tests in accordance with Halacha,” the statement added, referring to restrictions in Jewish law designed to limit autopsies and tampering with remains of the dead.

“In these circumstances, the attorney’s office has agreed that a warrant will be issued to exhume the bodies and take DNA samples to conduct maternity tests,” the attorney’s office concluded.

Under the law initiated by Likud MK Nurit Koren, the relatives were required to give the family courts evidence substantiating their doubts that their relatives are buried in the various sites.

Yemenite immigrants in a camp near Ein Shemer in 1950. (Pinn Hans/GPO)

Disputed by scholars and seemingly refuted by three state commissions that examined the affair and concluded most of the children had died, the case of the missing children has kept resurfacing, not least because most of the families were not given their children’s bodies or informed of their burial places. Furthermore, death certificates were riddled with errors, and most of the missing children were sent army draft notices 18 years after their alleged deaths. There have also been cases where adopted children were able to confirm, through DNA tests, that they were from Yemenite families who were told they had died.

Exhuming the remains of the children for genetic testing would not be entirely unprecedented: in 1996, then-health minister Tzachi Hanegbi approved the exhumation of 10 graves in Petah Tikva as part of the investigation into the affair.

The latest resurgence of interest in the case came after the state archives declassified 400,000 documents on the affair in December 2016. Despite the revelations, the long-simmering controversy is far from resolved, as the families have rejected the findings of successive Knesset official commissions of inquiry, and advocacy groups representing the families have continued to step up pressure for further probes. Information on adoptions remain under wraps in accordance with Israel’s iron-clad adoption laws.

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