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In Israeli Lab, Some of Dead Get No Rest

Mideast: What to do about the remains of Palestinian suicide bombers poses a vexing problem as bodies go unclaimed by relatives.

July 11, 2002|MEGAN K. STACK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JAFFA, Israel — The broken bodies crowd the steel refrigerators out back, but nobody knows what to do with them. What little is left of 25 suicide bombers and snipers has been piling up for weeks. Usually, there is nothing but a Palestinian head and a pair of Palestinian feet, perhaps a charred Palestinian finger or a shard of Palestinian spine.

The burned bits are all that remain of dead militants, men and women who slipped across the line from the Palestinian territories, who came to kill and came to die. When the mission is over, when the streets are washed clean and the Jews have come to carry the bones of their kin into the hills for burial--when everybody has gone home, the Palestinians stay, chilled and forgotten.

The bodies are an awkward reminder of another breakdown between two warring people. Palestinians don't venture into Israel any more to gather the remains of their dead. Maybe they are frightened, as the investigators here at the only forensics laboratory in this bloody nation believe. Or maybe the harsh net of curfews, roadblocks and fences has made the journey impossible.

The technicians grumble, and the director frets, and the Israeli public complains, but the bodies stay. The attorney general's office is expected to hammer out some sort of policy on the treatment of unclaimed Palestinian corpses, but it's no simple task. Here in Israel--a nation spitting with rage over Palestinian attacks, but still a nation where the rituals of death are hallowed and bodies are sacred--nobody knows what to do with the corpses of the enemy.

"It's hard for me even to say it, but the terrorist is still entitled to be treated as a human body," Health Ministry spokesman Ido Hadari says. "Many Israelis say one who kills babies and schoolgirls is not somebody who can be called human."

In the laboratory of forensic director Yehuda Hiss, the mystery of life is reduced to the science of fingerprints and blood samples, tattoos and DNA. "Once you smell it," he says, "you never forget."

The laboratory's grounds near Tel Aviv look like a defunct summer camp, a smattering of cottages lush with blooming vines and cool pine groves. This used to be a private Mediterranean resort, the playground of a wealthy Arab family whose name, Abu Kabir, still graces the complex. In the bloodshed of Israel's War of Independence in 1948, Jews seized this and other land from fleeing Arabs.

Now, the remains of Israelis and their Arab assassins are examined side by side in what used to be the family's stables. "Once they're dead, they're dead," Hiss says. "There's no difference anymore."

After a suicide attack, when the scraps of flesh and bone are brought here and spread across his metal tables, Hiss picks out the bomber at a glance. The bombs are cinched about the waist, and the explosion tends to send the killer's feet and head flying out of fire's range. When the smoke clears, that's usually all that's left. "You know how many of these I've done?" Hiss says. "I can tell in a second."

There was a time when Palestinians made the trip to claim their dead. The mothers and brothers slipped over the line from the refugee camps and villages, padded gray and grave into Hiss' office and said, "I think this is my son." They rolled up their sleeves and offered to have their blood drawn so the body could be identified.

Not anymore. Everybody knows what happens to the families of suicide bombers. Israeli soldiers come with bombs and bulldozers to turn the family house to dust and pebbles. The survivors are pushed into the street. Entire villages are usually interrogated and harassed.

Even the militant groups that once stepped forward to crow over the attacks have grown more hesitant to release a name, a village, or a videotape. They want to protect the families, they say. And even if Hamas, Islamic Jihad or another group identifies the bomber, that is irrelevant to Hiss: At Abu Kabir, identity is gleaned only from scientific analysis.

In this religious land of perpetual warfare, the rites of death do a delicate dance with the rules of combat. Because both Jews and Muslims are supposed to bury corpses by sundown, the hours after a killing are strained with pressure to collect the bodies and take them back to home soil.

Militant Palestinian organizations used to steal their fighters' corpses from hospitals and bury them before Israeli soldiers could figure out who they were. In March, when the morgue in Ramallah overflowed, Israel eased the siege on the West Bank city long enough to allow the dead to be buried. Mourning Palestinians dug a gaping grave in the dirt of a parking lot, buried the bodies en masse, and went back to war.

Because Hiss is running out of storage space, he has struck a clumsy compromise: When three months have passed, he sends the Palestinian bodies to be buried in a collective plot on Israeli soil.

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