66°F
weather icon Cloudy

Nearly 2 months into the war, Israelis have no idea if their relatives are dead or alive

Updated December 2, 2023 - 3:52 pm

JERUSALEM — There was no trace of Hanan Yablonka — not on the 42-year-old Israeli’s social media accounts nor on his phone, found in the bullet-riddled car he and four friends tried to flee in after Hamas terrorists attacked the music festival they were attending in southern Israel.

The friends were killed in the Oct. 7 attack. But nearly two months later, Yablonka’s family still has no news about what happened to him. He is one of dozens of people still unaccounted for after Hamas infiltrated Israel, killing some 1,200 people and taking about 240 hostages.

Some of the bodies of those who died were so badly burned in fires or explosions during the attacks that there’s little left to identify. Others who might still be alive haven’t been traced, forcing families to live in limbo.

“It’s a big nightmare,” Yablonka’s niece, Emanuel Abady, told The Associated Press. “Is he alive, is he dead, or where is the body? Maybe he’s in Gaza. … Maybe he got hurt, maybe he got shot, but he’s in Gaza.”

In the immediate aftermath of the attack, police, the military and investigators grappled with a mass casualty crime scene, trying to identify the dead and the abducted. Getting clear answers for people’s whereabouts and the number of dead was, and remains, challenging.

In November, the military adjusted the number of people killed from more than 1,400 to approximately 1,200, but didn’t specify why. It’s also repeatedly updated the number of hostages believed to have been taken into Gaza.

Israeli officials told The Associated Press that dozens of people’s fates were still unknown.

Archaeologists enlisted to help

The military said it has enlisted the help of archaeologists to apply excavation techniques used in burned and damaged ancient sites to help identify victims. The experts have helped identify at least 10 people.

Some people initially thought to have been taken hostage were proclaimed dead, including Vivian Silver, a Canadian-born Israeli peace activist whose family was recently notified she’d been killed. Others thought to have been killed were found to have been abducted, like 9-year-old Emily Hand, who was released during the weeklong truce that expired Friday.

Bodies and other human remains have been taken to the Shura military base in central Israel, now converted into a morgue for the identification of victims.

At the start, it was easier to identify bodies that were more intact, according to forensic specialists. But the final stretch has become painstaking with the need to sift through charred bones making it harder to extract and match DNA. Other means of identification, such as fingerprints or dental records, cannot be used.

“It is a long process, sometimes we don’t have the right bone or the right sample in order to give the answer. … When you have difficult samples it takes time,” said Gila Kahila Bar-Gal, a professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University who is an expert in wildlife forensics and ancient DNA research and has been volunteering at the National Institute of Forensic Medicine to help identify victims. It can take up to twice as long to identify burned bones, she said.

It’s also been challenging to determine how many people were abducted in the chaos that ensued when Hamas terrorists penetrated from Gaza into Israel.

“Many people ended up storming through the barrier that day: civilians, terrorists and Hamas, and it’s still pretty unclear the scale of who was taken and who’s holding everyone,” said Mairav Zonszein, senior analyst on Israel for the International Crisis Group.

Niece believes uncle still alive

Yablonka’s niece believes her uncle is still alive and was likely abducted. Through video, text messages and phone calls the family has pieced together the last few hours before he disappeared.

Yablonka was among the thousands who attended the Tribe of Nova Trance music festival near the border with Gaza. A father of two, he loved music, Abady said. But his family didn’t know he’d gone to the festival, and it was only when they hadn’t heard from him late on Oct. 7 that they started making calls, combing through social media and contacting the police.

When the sirens warning of Hamas rockets went off that morning, surveillance video received by the family and seen by the AP shows a man the family says is Yablonka in a packed festival parking lot, at one point crouching behind a car.

Just before 7 a.m., one of his friends, a man, called Israel’s emergency service from the car, saying someone had been shot. Text messages sent by the two women with them to their families said Yablonka was driving and they were trying to escape.

Another video shown to the family revealed the damaged car with its back window blown out and shattered glass, a backpack and clothes strewn on the seat. The car was found near Mefalsim Kibbutz, a few kilometers (miles) from the festival site, with the bodies of Yablonka’s friends nearby, Abady said.

There was no trace of Yablonka, including any blood splatter. His keys, phone and identification document were inside. The family has provided DNA samples, along with Yablonka’s dental records and medical information in hopes he will be found and identified.

A psychological and emotional toll

The stress and anxiety of not knowing what happened to a loved one takes a huge psychological and emotional toll, said Sarah Davies, a spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“They are living with a gaping hole in their lives. Countless scenarios run through the mind of family members … imagining the worst and being unable to do anything about it,” she said.

For some families, it was too painful to wait for answers.

In early November, Liel Hetzroni’s family put some of the 12-year-old’s clothes, personal belongings and ashes from where they thought she’d died inside a coffin and buried it alongside her twin brother and aunt.

The three were trapped in a house with dozens of others in Kibbutz Be’eri during an hourslong standoff between Hamas and Israeli soldiers that ended in an explosion, killing nearly everyone inside, said Liel’s cousin, Sagi Shifroni.

While the remains of Liel’s brother and aunt were quickly identified, there was no trace of Liel for weeks, he said.

“The waiting (wasn’t) healthy for the soul or for our family,” Shifroni said. Shortly after they buried the coffin, the army informed them that one of her bones had been found.

“It feels good to get an approval for what we knew already,” he said. “It’s closure.”

———

This story has been updated to correct the number of people who tried to flee with Yablonka from three to four.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
THE LATEST
Trump takes S. Carolina primary; Haley has no plans to drop out

The former president was declared the winner just seconds after the polls closed at 4 p.m. PT. Exit poll data allowed NBC News and other media to name him a landslide winner.

US, British answer terrorist surge in Red Sea attacks on ships

Fighter jets hit about 18 sites across multiple locations, targeting missiles, launchers, rockets, drones and unmanned surface and underwater vehicles.

Roughly 600 new sanctions on Russia over Navalny’s death

The United States and the European Union announced the move on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.