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Will the Secrets Come Tumbling Out?

Shlomi Gil

Families in Yemenite Children Affair Share Hope and Anxiety

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

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T he 66-year-old mystery of the disappearance of more than 1,000 young Yemenite immigrants — a stain on the record of the State of Israel during its infancy — will not be solved in one day. In fact, it may never be solved at all.

Last week’s release of 3,500 case files from the National Archives containing more than 200,000 documents from three government panels raises as many questions as it does answers. Parents have long accused the State of kidnapping their children to sell them into adoption to childless Ashkenazi couples in the years following the immigration of 50,000 Yemenite Jews in Operation Magic Carpet in 1949. Documents confirm that many children disappeared either right after birth or following hospitalization for pediatric illnesses. Families were told that the children had died, but were not shown their bodies. Nor were they provided information about their funerals, or even issued death certificates.

Relatives who rushed to examine the first batch of documents were disappointed. Many of the documents were illegible or just plain confusing, they said.

“There are still so many questions that remain open, and I’m afraid the protocols will not provide the answers,” says Motti Dahbash, who testified before the Kedmi Commission in 2001 about his younger sister, Zohara. Admitted to a children’s hospital in Rosh Ha’ayin at age two, officials later told the family that Zohara had died and was buried in an unknown location. Newly released information in her files confirm a contradiction in her age at death. Jewish Agency records show a Zohara Dahbash who died at age nine, not two, and no new information on her burial.

Although no smoking guns have been found in the initial release of the archives, Motti Dahbash remains convinced there was a conspiracy at play.

“There are senior political elements that are still trying to torpedo and cover up the details of the incidents,” he says. “There is no choice but to investigate and find the truth once and for all, and we will not give up until we know where they all disappeared to.”

The number of missing children has never been officially confirmed, but estimates have ranged from 1,000 to 4,500. The disappearances continued until 1954, from Israeli hospitals, nurseries, or from the transit camps (ma’abarot) where many Yemenite Jews lived following their arrival.

For many years, the state ignored their claims. But as the years passed, and more personal testimonies came to light, the government launched three separate commissions — in 1967, 1988, and 1995 to conduct independent investigations. While each panel issued a public report, the documents the reports were based on were classified and consigned to state archives until 2071.

Over the past year, new protests and pressure from Yemenite Jews reached the ears of Knesset members, including Minister of Justice Ayelet Shaked, demanding the protocols be released. Prime Minister Netanyahu appointed Minister Tzachi Hanegbi, his Minister of National Security and Foreign affairs — and who comes from Yemenite descent on his mother’s side — to review the issue of declassification. Shortly after he began work, Hanegbi concurred that hundreds of children were intentionally taken from their parents.

Over the years, several Yemenite children with Ashkenazi parents have tracked down their natural parents and conclusively determined their Yemenite blood with DNA testing.

Amos Manor, the head of the Shin Bet between 1953 and 1963, once testified that he considered it unlikely that the state, in its early days, could have organized a conspiracy of such scale.

All three government commissions, however, heard harsh testimonies from parents who looked for their children for decades, along with siblings who sought lost siblings and other relatives. The protocols reveal the testimonies of nurses at hospitals who claimed that they saw children being taken for adoption — without the knowledge of their parents. The nurses also testified that in many instances they tried to find the Yemenite parents, unsuccessfully.

The Kedmi Commission, the last of the three to look into the disappearances, established reliable proof of the deaths of 733 children, while it determined that 56 others disappeared without a trace. Their fate is listed as “unknown.”

What more will investigators find in the newly released files?

The documents, which contain the core materials of the Commissions of Inquiry, mainly reveal what happened behind the scenes. The letters that were sent to the commissions, investigative files that were opened for each missing child, hundreds of testimonies brought before the committee, and classified medical files and files from the cemeteries, that could shed a bit of light on this unresolved mystery.

Sources familiar with the documents agreed that the protocols will reveal little that’s new. They also concur that there is no evidence to suggest an organized conspiracy to steal children from their parents.

However, all is not lost for those still seeking loved ones. The next stage, per those waging this battle, is to open the individual children’s adoption files, a legally complex process. Prime Minister Netanyahu has addressed this demand and determined that it could be possible. “We want to put this story behind us by opening it,” he said, “both in order to resolve the suspicions and suffering of the families, and in order to reach the truth.”

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