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Two weeks on, Israel still struggling to identify the dead

‘I’ve seen things with my own eyes that no one should ever see,’ one volunteer said

SHURA ARMY BASE – Until two weeks ago, the Shura army base was among the quietest military outposts in Israel. Located in central Israel, not far from a residential neighborhood on the outskirts of Ramle, Shura served mainly as a logistics center and the home of the IDF’s rabbinate.

It was a place where nothing special happened, those serving on the base told Jewish Insider on Thursday.

That all changed on Oct. 7, after the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas carried out a brutal and murderous mass attack on multiple army bases, kibbutzim and towns in southern Israel, as well as a music festival, killing more than 1,400 people.

Now, Shura is one of a handful of sites in Israel where the dead are still being brought for identification, a place where the horrific atrocities are being photographed and recorded, and the bodies are cleansed and prepared for burial by their families.

And last Thursday, 13 days after the attack, the bodies were still arriving.

“We are in an abnormal situation and that is why it is taking so much time to identify the bodies,” Col. Rabbi Haim Weisberg, head of the army’s rabbinic division, told JI, describing a “massacre.”

“In most cases, we have had to identify people via deep tissue DNA or dental records because there is nothing left,” he continued. “And we are still getting bodies, last night we received an additional 73 body parts.”

The operation at Shura is not happening in a typical sterile forensic lab but in large white tents erected in an open area, surrounded by eerie rows of refrigerated containers. Inside each container lie dozens of carefully wrapped dead bodies and bags of body parts retrieved from the sites that have yet to be assessed.

The smell of the dead is overwhelming.

“These are things we have not seen since the Nazis,” Weisberg said. “We are seeing trucks arriving with whole families inside — grandparents, mothers, fathers and children — and we are still collecting bodies from the roads, homes, playgrounds and fields where they were killed.”

“In normal times, rabbis here deal with dead bodies, but this time it is abnormal,” emphasized Col. Rabbi Haim Weisberg, head of the army’s rabbinic division. “Here we have identified more than 800 bodies just here, and there are still another 400 waiting to be examined.”

“These kibbutzim used to be a place where these families celebrated life and enjoyed joy and happiness,” he continued. “It is impossible to believe what this terrorist organization did there.”

Weisberg talked not only about whole bodies but also about badly charred remains, including what in one case turned out to be remains so badly burned that only a CT scan revealed it was actually a mother and baby bound together in a deep embrace. In another, he described a pregnant woman, her stomach cut open, the fetus pulled out and beheaded — the umbilical cord still attached.

“In normal times, rabbis here deal with dead bodies, but this time it is abnormal,” emphasized Weisberg. “Here we have identified more than 800 bodies just here, and there are still another 400 waiting to be examined.”

On Sunday, the army said that beyond the 1,400 killed and the more than 212 people believed to be held hostage by Hamas in Gaza, there were a further 100 people still unaccounted for. Some may be held by other terrorist groups, or even individuals, inside the Palestinian enclave. Others may still be among the dead, yet to be identified in places such as Shura.

At the base, in addition to the religious figures there to oversee the examination and eventual tahara — the Jewish tradition of purification of the dead — is also a team of female volunteers. The women comprise a unique military reserve unit that is working with the army to take care of the countless girls and women who were murdered.

Shari, whose full name cannot be shared under military guidelines, said that she volunteered for the unit when it was set up more than a decade ago with the aim of ensuring that the modesty of female recruits killed in action was protected.

“We saw evidence of rape,” Shari, a volunteer, stated. “Pelvises were broken, and it probably takes a lot to break a pelvis… and this was also among grandmothers down to small children. This is not just something we saw on the internet, we saw these bodies with our own eyes.”

A full-time architect who lives in Jerusalem, Shari said she and the other volunteers received special training from the army, which prepared them practically and mentally for how to care for the bodies of the dead, but until Oct. 7 she had not been called for active duty.

Now, Shari and around a dozen other women are working in shifts around the clock.

“I’ve seen things with my own eyes that no one should ever see,” Shari said.

She described in chilling detail taking care of the dead women, many still wearing their pajamas, their heads blasted off, their bodies booby-trapped with grenades, and evidence of extreme brutality.

“We saw evidence of rape,” Shari stated. “Pelvises were broken, and it probably takes a lot to break a pelvis… and this was also among grandmothers down to small children. This is not just something we saw on the internet, we saw these bodies with our own eyes.”

Describing how her work includes opening the body bags, removing the dead person’s clothing, jewelry and any other personal possessions in order to return them to the families, Shari said doctors could then take several hours to assess an individual body, photograph it and document all the wounds.

“The only color among the blood and dirt was their nails, beautiful manicures, painted the brightest colors,” Shari said, adding, “Their nails made me weep.”

But for many of the dead, even fingernails were no longer discernible, those working at Shura told JI. And with so many of the bodies — both from the kibbutzim and from the Nova festival — badly burned, DNA identification is not always possible. Instead, forensic teams have been working to identify people from dental records. Yet even that was a struggle, a military dentist, who could only be identified as Shir, told JI.

“We are working with dentists across the country to check dental records,” she said. “For the soldiers that were killed, it is easier, but for those who lived in the south it is tricky.”

In the ring of kibbutzim that surround the Gaza Strip, Shir said, many of the dentists who lived and worked there were killed, had their clinics destroyed, or were now among the thousands evacuated from the area.

“We need to be sure who each person is,” she said. “Only then we can bring them to their family for burial.”

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