Officials exhuming the grave of a baby who died in 1952 to confirm to the boy’s family that he really is buried there, halted the dig on Tuesday after they uncovered the remains of a second body underneath the same headstone.
The exhumation on Monday marked the first-ever opening of a grave for DNA testing in the Yemenite Children Affair, the decades-old claim by immigrants who arrived from Yemen and other countries that their children and siblings had been kidnapped from them as babies in the 1950s.
The Yemenite Children Affair involves more than 1,000 families — mostly immigrants from Yemen, but also dozens from the Balkans, North Africa and other Middle Eastern countries — who have alleged their children were abducted from Israeli hospitals and put up for adoption, sometimes abroad, in Israel’s early years, while families were told that they had died.
The child whose grave was opened up is Uziel Houri. He is officially buried in the Segula Cemetery in the central city of Petah Tikvah. Five families related to Houri asked for and received a court order permitting the exhumation. According to state records, the child was born in 1952 and died a year later of illness.
Last week, the Health Ministry announced that the exhumation would be carried out to obtain a DNA sample from the remains for the purpose of establishing family authentication. The ministry said it was acting under a law passed four years ago that permits opening a grave in order to carry out genetic testing to determine family ties.
Under an agreement between the Houri family and state authorities, the DNA sampling will be done at the state-operated Abu Kabir Forensic Institute, though an expert on behalf of the families will also be present.
The Houri family immigrated to Israel in 1948. Uziel and a brother were born four years later. After Uziel became ill, he was taken to the hospital by welfare services. Shortly afterward, the family was told that he had died. A past state commission of inquiry into the Yemenite children saga found that he did indeed die and that he is buried in the grave that bears his name.
Following the discovery of the second grave, Houri’s family will now have to return to court to get approval to exhume the adjoining grave.
Rachel Dotan, the family’s attorney, blamed the excavators for the holdup.
“We reached the cobblestone that covers the deceased, but because the excavator on behalf of the state dug too far to the right, the part of the nearby grave was also discovered,” she said.
“He claimed that as far as he was concerned, there are two graves under the same tombstone, and therefore did not have the authority to open them and stopped the excavation.”
Dotan added that a photo of the exhumed grave will be submitted to the court.
In the meantime, the Ynet news site reported on Tuesday that officials are preparing to dig up nine additional graves following the halt.
The graves, located at Segula Cemetery and at a graveyard in Tel Aviv, will be opened following separate court orders on the matter, with the operation overseen by the Health Ministry and the Institute of Forensic Medicine.
Ynet also said that the graves will probably have to be opened simultaneously since some are adjacent to one another.
In the Yemenite Children Affair, officials’ explanations were that the children died while under medical care, but many families do not believe this, insisting their children were taken away and given to childless couples of European backgrounds. Although previous inquiries have dismissed all claims of mass abductions, suspicions have lingered and contributed to a long-simmering fault line between Jews of European origin and those of Middle Eastern backgrounds.
Three high-profile investigative commissions dismissed the claims of a conspiracy and found that most children had died of diseases in immigration camps. The most recent inquiry, in 2001, said it was possible that some children were handed over for adoption by individual social workers, but not as part of a national conspiracy. However, citing privacy laws, it ordered the testimonies it collected be sealed for 70 years.
In February 2021, the government approved a NIS 162 million (almost $50 million) compensation program over the issue of the Yemenite children.
The proposal included a declaration that “the government of Israel regrets the events that happened in the early days of the state and recognizes the suffering of families whose children were part of this painful issue.”
However, a number of families involved demanded that the government reveal confidential documents relating to the matter, calling the compensation plan “hush money.”