Thursday, January 26, 2006

ISRAEL'S MIAs: missing in action!

I just heard tonight for the first time that Israel, unlike most other countries, has no memorial for "The Unknown Soldier". Why? Because Israel's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion declared after the War of Independence in '48 that every Israeli soldier has a name and an identity and no effort should be spared in tracing all MIAs so that they can be given a proper burial. This is particularly important for young Jewish widows who would be left as "agunot" or "chained wives" (without the ability to remarry and start a new family, because their children would be sigmatised as "mamserim" unless there was proof of death of the husband).

Therefore no effort is spared by groups of experts and volunteers in a special unit in the IDF who then set about to track down every single soldier MIA. Sometimes it takes years for these to be found and there are still some 200 MIAs from the various wars waiting to be traced.

The speaker (at a function for a new group of Friends of the Israeli Firefighters, very appropriate for us these days!) described 2 fascinating cases which he helped to solve. One was still from the '48 war who was buried at he time in a field where he fell,- but without ID. The situation in those days was desperate, they needed every man and having got separated from his brigade, someone asked this particular guy to join another without any formalities. He fell in battle, was quickly buried and then forgotten.

The investigators tried very hard to find this MIA, but it was only after many years that they spoke with a newly arrived relative from his home town, who was blind. She remembered him and said only that when he hugged her as a child, she felt that one of his front teeth was different.
Then it 'clicked' for them, - someone had described this person with a gold tooth in his unit. They found one unknown body among many in a certain field where that particular battle took place, but with a front tooth missing! By that time, both his mother and his daughter had passed away and only they could prove his DNA (males canot do that). But the missing front tooth, obviously stolen because of its gold, by someone at the time, helped them to identify him. Some 40years after his death, this MIA was given a proper burial, with an identity which his grandchildren can see. Sadly by that time his daughter and parents had passed away.

Another case he described involved a missing navigator who was shot down over Egyptian territory in the '73 Yom Kipur war. It was some 20 years later that they followed a hunch from a satelite photo to chase up a particular field, which when they got there, was planted with wheat.
The team of some 20 people from the army and specialists in various fields who gathered there, bought the crop from the farmer, harvested it and proceeded to dig and look for any remnants of a plane.

While the Egyptians insisted that they didn't hold or shoot this airman, the Israelis didn't believe them because another pilot thought he saw all the airmen parachuting out of the Phantom jet at the time. The investigators wanted to at least find the plane.

All the children and people in the village were offered bribes to bring any plane fragments they could find and many did. But there was a Professor in the team, with experience in Africa as an "osseologist",- archeological bones expert, who recognised a tiny part of a jaw-bone which was brought to them by one of the kids. To their amazement, from this one particular tiny bone, the Professor was able to describe the complete stature of the person from where it came! The description fitted exactly the missing airman's physique. This gave them the inpetus to search also for the body as well as the aeroplane. Sure enough, several feet underground they came upon the cockpit of the plane and the remains of the MIA still inside. Apparentlythere was a malfunction in the ejection mechanism and he looked as though he was chained to his seat.

Then they remembered reading an article in the Egyptian papers of those days, where they were gloating over the downing of two Phantoms plus claiming that Israelis "chain their pilots to their seats otherwise they would run away"! No one took it more than senseless propaganda and dismissed it because they believed that the Egyptians simply didn't want to admit that they probably killed the airman, just as they did another one whose body was returned after the peace treaty was signed.
It was a most interesting evening,- like watching the Foxtel Discovery channel about crime investigators! What impressed us most is the degree of importance and the perseverence which is dedicated to this project by the government and the IDF.
Kol Hakavod to them.
"Every soldier has a name and an identity." There is no "Joe Doe" in Israel!

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