Welcome to What Matters Now, a weekly podcast exploration into one key issue shaping Israel and the Jewish World — right now.
The destruction wrought by Hamas on October 7 on the small Israeli communities surrounding the Gaza border was so complete that in many cases, only microscopic remnants of those 1,200 who were killed there can be found today.
The Israel Antiquities Authority is accustomed to searching for such human remains — albeit for people who lived hundreds, if not thousands of years ago. Today, some 30 volunteers from the IAA are working in shifts, sifting through the rubble — in Be’eri, in Kfar Aza, in the cars that were torched fleeing the Supernova rave.
“We’re searching for things that are so small that if it’s not using archaeological methodologies, they’re not possible to be found,” the IAA’s Dead Sea Scrolls unit head Dr. Joe Uziel told The Times of Israel this week.
He honed his CSI skills on, for example, remains of the Babylonian conquest in Jerusalem’s City of David. Today, he is volunteering to help identify those killed near Gaza with the same techniques.
The team of volunteers has so far found the remains of some 60 people who were killed. But identifying who they are is difficult because some of the small bone fragments are from the terrorists that came into the kibbutzim, others are from foreign workers and young children whose DNA is not on file.
So this week, archaeologist Dr. Joe Uziel tells us, what matters now.
The following conversation has been slightly edited.
Times of Israel: Thank you so much for joining me today in Jerusalem’s Nomi studios. Unfortunately, our topic of conversation is not so pleasurable. You are part of the team of Israel Antiquities Authorities archaeologists who are helping identify human remains in the Gaza envelope after the massacre that Hamas committed on October 7. Can you tell us how you became involved in this project? How did the IAA become involved?
Dr. Joe Uziel: First of all, I should say that I think it’s the first time ever, at least for me as an archaeologist, that I feel my skills are being applied to something that is so modern, so current events, so dramatic, so powerful. As archaeologists, we’re used to dealing with things that occurred hundreds, thousands of years ago. But our director-general Eli Escusido, who also serves in reserve duty and was in contact with the army and the team that was in charge of identifying the remains of missing people, together they came up with the idea that our skills could be applied in the field and our skills as archaeologists could be applied in the field in this situation.
On the one hand, it’s extremely different from everything that we do on a regular basis, but on the other hand, it’s very similar to the actual work we do as archaeologists. Personally, when I found out about the project, I volunteered, so did other IAA archaeologists who saw this as a real opportunity to do something after the [southern] communities suffered so much on October 7. There’s a large group, I’d say roughly about 30 archaeologists, and every day about 15 go to the field. Some are there every day, some of us rotate according to our schedules, and go maybe two to three days a week working at different sites.
So many times over the years that I’ve covered archaeology, I’ve spoken with archaeologists about the high-tech methodology that is increasingly being used in the field. And so many times people have said to me, it’s like crime scene investigation forensics. And I never really believed that those skills would be used in such a contemporary purpose. And the first time that you were out in the field, how did you feel?
I think the first moments are just taking it in because you don’t know what to expect. I mean, you see the images on the news and you hear the voices of the people who went through it. And those are extremely powerful. On a personal level, I very clearly remember sitting at home on October 7 and feeling quite helpless, not being able to do anything for these people who were suffering so much.
When I first arrived, I didn’t really know what to expect. My first impressions were just walking down the pathways and seeing beautiful greenery and there’s this sort of quiet, except for the bombings you can hear in the distance. But, you can feel that sort of very calming presence. The first thing that I felt was connecting to words I kept hearing from people from these villages, which is: “This was our slice of heaven.” And that’s what I felt. And then all of a sudden, you turn your head and you see how that heaven was turned into hell.
That was sort of my first feeling, and you don’t know how you’re going to manage it. But once you start working, you delve deeply into the technical side of things. We’re working together with soldiers from different units, from the IDF Rabbinate to the IDF missing persons unit. It’s quite physical, it’s quite technical, and you really connect to what we’re used to doing in our day-to-day job [as archaeologists]. Once that happens, it becomes a very, I’d say, natural connection, and you understand how you’re contributing. It sort of fills you with some sort of, I want to say a sense of accomplishment. It’s very difficult to use positive words in this situation, nothing is positive. But I think our contribution has been quite impactful.
Having a sense of purpose in contributing is, of course, very important during this really difficult time. And I know, I feel that as a journalist as well, that once I put on the mask of a journalist, then I can tamp down all the feeling, but it creeps up, of course. You are out in the field, which you are obviously used to, though you now have more of a desk job as the head of the Dead Sea Scrolls project. But in the past, you were in the City of David. You’re no stranger to dealing with bones. You’re no stranger to dealing with any kind of humanity, the remains of humanity. But this is fresh. How are you dealing with that?
I think this is sort of a split answer. On the one hand, when we’re doing the work, we’re really trying to focus on the technical side of things. And yes, we’re used to dealing with events that occurred hundreds and thousands of years ago, but at the end of the day the ability to identify findings, particularly remains, is similar. So in that sense, I think we’re sort of focused on the technical, and then in terms of understanding, ‘Okay, wait, I am collecting remains of someone who was killed three weeks ago in a horrible fashion.’
The way I deal with it, and I think most of the archaeologists from the IAA are probably thinking the same way from the conversations I’ve had with them, is there are missing people. We know of people that were murdered. We know of people that were kidnapped. And there’s a lot of gray area in between, which are the missing people. If we can provide some knowledge of what happened, it can help any one of these families get some closure. I think for many of them not knowing [what happened] is something that is just so difficult. I can’t even imagine it.
We heard this week about the confirmation of the death of Vivian Silver and I believe that was through your project. How many other families have you helped bring to closure?
So, it’s actually a little bit complex. We’ve found the remains of some 60 people who were killed. And I say “were killed” and not “murdered” because some of the finds that we have are from the terrorists that came into the kibbutzim. We have over 10 positive, secure identifications and this is still a work in process. It’s not always easy, once we find the remains, to make a 100% positive identification because the finds are being sent to the pathological labs of the IDF where they’re, if possible, being checked for DNA.
Well, here, DNA can be complex. Not always do the remains have remains of DNA; not always do bone fragments have remains of DNA that we can use or that the labs can use. DNA is also a comparative thing. If you have DNA of missing people, you can compare, but if you don’t then you don’t necessarily have that connection. This is a work in progress and it will take some time.
One of our biggest problems is, of course, that we don’t know exactly who was abducted, kidnapped, or taken hostage. We have this rough number and we see the difficulties. It is really hard to come up with identifications. Everyone — be it from the police, the army, ZAKA [voluntary community emergency response teams] — are trying to do their best. Everyone is just coming in and contributing in a way similar to what we see in Israeli society right now, that everyone is just trying to contribute somehow to help.
In the City of David, you have worked on destructions such as the Babylonian conquest. How would you compare the destruction that you’re seeing in the Gaza envelope to what you’ve seen from these thousands of years ago — very tragic events that are still commemorated by the Jewish people?
I would say there are numerous similarities and there are differences. You use the Babylonian destruction, so let’s go there. For the Babylonian destruction we’re talking about buildings from 2,500 years ago or more — there’s the initial collapse of the destruction and then there’s the continued collapse. These are processes of destruction that change the way the site looks. Another difference are the materials. The materials that were available 2,600 years ago are different, sometimes, than materials that are found in the burnt houses [in the Gaza envelope today]. One example I’ll give is plastic, which wasn’t available then and is one of the primary burnt materials that we’re finding now. So there are differences.
At the same time, there are a lot of similar aspects of what we’re searching for in terms of human remains and bone fragments, which is primarily what we’re looking for — teeth, bone and personal adornments, such as jewelry. We pass them on to the army, and this way they have another possible way of creating an identification.
The layering is also somewhat similar because basically in these houses you can actually see a stratigraphy of sorts. Quite often you will have the collapsed upper story sitting above the collapsed ceiling, sitting above the burnt layer of the lower floor. You have zones within the house; we work according to different zones. So it’s not just clearing everything in one big pile and running through it. We’re sort of trying to say: “Okay, this happened in this room and this happened in that room.” These are some of the concepts that are very similar and connect us with our day-to-day work.
You’re used to working at a pace, which is the pace that you choose, right? You can study a site for a decade if you wish. But time is of the essence right now. How is that changing how you work? Or is it?
The truth is that every context that we go into, every building we’re going into, we’re trying to do our best to get out all of the information. We’re not trying to work with speed. We are trying to coordinate somewhat with information we may have that can help us narrow and pinpoint. But I’d say any attempt at speed here will cause us to miss things. Our primary aim is not to miss things. There are houses that we’ve gone back to after our first initial check and have returned to them in order to complete the work.
Give us just some names of the places where you are working.
Personally, I have worked at Kibbutz Kissufim, Kibbutz, Be’eri and Nahal Oz, within the cars that were burned, primarily from the Supernova music festival. But others have worked at other settlements, like Kfar Aza. Basically, anywhere where we have a chance of finding something is where we’re working. Everything is coordinated with the IDF to guarantee our safety and to make sure everything is documented. As I mentioned before, there are several teams. It’s the Israel Antiquities Authority, but also ZAKA and the IDF and police. A lot of coordination is necessary here to make sure we’re doing our job right.
And are you the final layer? Are you the last resort of finding these very difficult remains?
I think so. I think we come in at the point where the other teams had collected what they could. I don’t want to say that it’s definitely the final stage because who knows what else we can come up with. We, at the IAA, and I think the country in general, the IDF and anyone, will do anything and everything to come up with next steps. But when we leave these homes that have been burned, we have completely cleared them of the rubble, of the ash, of the burnt furniture. So I think we’re at the last stage at a point where we’re searching for things that are so small that if it’s not using archaeological methodologies, they’re not possible to be found.
You mentioned the complication of finding DNA in some of these bones. And is that because they’re just burnt to a crisp?
It’s because of the burning, but also because of the size of the remains. We have this sort of idea that DNA is really easy [to find], such as in many modern-day projects like searching for family lineage, and you get these little cotton swabs and everything is nice and easy. But that isn’t necessarily the case when you’re talking about small fragments of bone that have been burned. And so DNA becomes more complex. If we’re talking about certain people, we may have DNA to compare to, but others we don’t because we don’t have their original DNA, so you don’t know how to cross-examine the two.
Such as the foreign workers, for example, who worked in the agricultural fields, etc.
Yes, but even children. If the house was burnt down and the army doesn’t have their personal belongings that they can get DNA from, then how do you compare? So you start having to come up with different ways. It’s a very complex process. I should say that when we work, one of the primary things that we’re trying to do is balance between making sure we’re finding everything we can, but also respecting where we’re at. Everything we find is transferred automatically to the army, and at that point, they’re doing the analysis, they’re doing the next stages. This is important because we’re dealing with a modern situation.
As archaeologists, we also try to apply our highest level of ethics and consideration to events that happened hundreds and thousands of years ago. And here, we have to take it to a new height because we’re talking about people whose families are still around, and we have to be considerate to families, neighbors, friends. We have to be considerate to their feelings, how they’re reacting. And so we’re trying our best.
I never imagined that what happened on October 7 could happen. The atrocities, the massacre, the evil… I could never imagine ever having to use archaeological skills to contribute information to such a horrible massacre that occurred in my lifetime.
There are so many in the world today that are denying that this massacre ever took place, and you are an eyewitness to it. What would you say to those people?
Without getting too political, I think that the people who are denying [the massacres] are primarily doing so with a preset ideology. I am not sure if we will ever be able to convince these people because I think they’re denying that it occurred from really an anti-Israel and antisemitic point of view. I think our efforts in explaining to the world what happened have to be focused on people who are open-minded enough to understand that and who don’t come with a preset antisemitism or anti-Zionist approach.
Anyone who sees these houses, these villages, these cars, and I’ve come across numerous foreign journalists who have seen it and understand that this was more horrible than anything you could ever imagine. I think that the journalists who do come understand that. But there are those people who are spreading fake news on social media and saying this never happened. I’m not sure what to do about that. This is obviously preset in their own personal ideologies, racism and so on.
What you have seen is just terrible, but do you think that it is important that the world does see these horrors firsthand in terms of photography or videos? Is that important to get out?
I think so. Of course, this is my view, not in terms of an archaeologist, but I think it’s extremely important. Because if I think of myself as someone who’s sitting halfway across the world, and I read a news feed that says over a thousand Israelis were murdered in a horrifying way, I may have trouble understanding that because it’s so foreign to us, it’s so inconceivable to us that anyone could do this.
I think it is important for us to show what we’re doing, and that includes the work of the Israel Antiquities Authority. By showing how deep and how high resolution we’re going into these houses in order to be able to find even the most smallest remains, is actually showing, in a way, how important life is to Israeli society, how important our communities are to us, how important it is for us to support one another. I also think it is important to share with the world.
Joe, thank you so much for sharing with me.
Thank you for having me.
Check out the previous What Matters Now episode:
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