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RAMLA, Israel — “The smell goes straight to my heart,” Rabbi Israel Weiss said, standing in front of dozens of refrigerated shipping containers, each containing 50 bodies. Those who approach must wear a mask against the smell.
On Saturday evening, the former chief military rabbi of the Israeli military explained to journalists at Shura Base, Ramla, 20 kilometers southside of Tel Aviv, how he and his colleagues have been trying to identify not only hundreds of victims of the massacre committed by Hamas on October 7, but also the corpses of the Islamist militants who attacked them.
As chief military rabbi from 2000 to 2006, Weiss was responsible for identifying fallen Israeli soldiers and arranging their funerals.
When the Hamas killing squads — identified as terrorists by the U.S., EU and U.K. — murdered more than 1,300 Israelis, mostly civilians, in the south of Israel close to the Gaza Strip, he returned from retirement to help identify the bodies with the forensics unit of the Israeli army, which is often a challenge in the face of atrocities, and to prepare them for a funeral. His team describes atrocities such as people burned alive, decapitations and fingers and toes cut off.
Several generators for the refrigerated containers rattle incessantly, cutting through the silence of the soldiers present. The sun has already set. Shabbat, the sabbath, has just passed.
Since the Israeli pull-out from Gaza in 2005, the rabbi has not worked on Shabbat — until this week.
“I cannot describe to you in words what it is like to see a pregnant woman who has had her stomach cut open and the baby pulled out,” Weiss, who served in the military rabbinate for 30 years. “I only knew something like that from the Nazis.”
Many bodies had been burned, he continued. The forensic examination by his team showed they were still alive when they were burned. “We found bodies of elderly civilians. They had all their fingers and toes cut off.”
Some 90 percent of the soldiers have been identified so far, but only half of the civilians, according to the rabbi.
Avigayil, who in civilian life works as an IT expert, was called up as a reservist. For five years, she has been preparing for a mass casualty event like this with her corpse identification team. “We thought we were prepared, but we couldn’t be,” the 48-year-old noted, with a hint of caution. The numbers are too high. “The smell of death is everywhere.”
Her team is responsible only for the identification of women and works around the clock.
Avigayil listed the cruel treatment meted out. “We saw chopped-up bodies. Decapitated people, a decapitated child. Many shots to the head, as if one was not enough. A woman whose eyes were shot out.”
Her colleague and reservist Mayaan recalls: “We see them in stages of abuse that even if we knew them, we wouldn’t even recognize them.”
And they would see signs that are “purely torture,” she went on.
If bodies cannot be recognized by their face, DNA tests often offer the last resort.
Mayaan, who usually works as a dentist, said the forensic examination found several cases of rape.
One of the people she identified was one of her patients. His face was recognizable, but the body mutilated. “Whenever I saw him, I closed my eyes and imagined him in my dentist’s office,” the 35-year-old said, struggling to speak through her tears.
“What we saw, we will never stop seeing.”