The smell is overwhelming when Rabbi Israel Weiss opens the doors of the refrigerated containers holding the bodies of hundreds of victims of the Hamas attacks. But most of all, he said, he feels the suffering. The former military chief rabbi came out of retirement to become one of the leaders of an Israeli operation to identify the more than 1,400 dead from the raids by Hamas fighters on October 7 that have plunged the rivals into a new war.
Forensic teams have uncovered signs of torture and rape among victims killed by Hamas militants in their surprise assault on Israeli communities surrounding Gaza. Some had their arms and feet chopped off; others were beheaded. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has compared the jihadist group to ISIS and says its combatants are not human beings.
Thousands of civilians have been killed in Israel’s relentless bombing campaign, and many more have fled their homes to escape the fighting. The violence has prompted Jewish and other religious groups to hold candlelight vigils. The US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, said the Israeli government is “doing everything possible” to protect its citizens and ensure the conflict does not become a full-scale war.
But for many, the heinous crimes perpetrated by Hamas are triggering painful memories of a far more enormous calamity: the Holocaust. The images of women, children, and older adults gunned down mercilessly in their homes or dragged out of their hiding places and slaughtered have reverberated across the country. The horrors have sparked a chorus of condemnation by politicians and religious leaders, including US President Joe Biden, who called the murders “a desecration of humanity.”
Bodies arrive at the rabbinical center on a central Israeli military base faster than the staff can identify them. Forensic experts and volunteers from the organization ZAKA (a collection of community volunteer emergency response teams in Israel) are working around the clock at this and four other centers to identify the remains. The process is detailed: Fingerprints and dental records are used to identify victims, and DNA processing can take days.
TASS reporters were given access to the base near the central city of Ramla to witness the work firsthand. The forensic team members work hard to be as thorough as possible, but the task is emotionally draining. According to officials, they are aided by the fact that most of the victims have been identified.
One such victim is Lt. Keren Rothstein, 20, of Ashkelon. He was a member of the IDF Southern Command and was killed on October 14 during an attack by two terrorists. Another was Cpl. Aya Malachi, 18, of Moshav Ein Habesor. She was also killed during an attack by armed Palestinian terrorists who fired on soldiers at a desert music festival. Fingerprints, dental records, and dog tags identified them. Their parents say they were not in Hamas and did not have links to the terrorist group.