Israeli medical experts declare some Gaza hostages dead in absentia
JERUSALEM — Even as it tries to recover hostages through indirect talks with Hamas and army operations in the Gaza Strip, Israel has been declaring some of the missing as dead in captivity, a measure designed to grant anxious relatives some closure.
A three-person medical committee has been poring over videos from the Oct. 7 rampage by Hamas-led Palestinian gunmen in southern Israel for signs of lethal injuries among those abducted, and cross-referencing with the testimony of hostages freed during a week-long Gaza truce that ended on Friday.
That can suffice to determine that a hostage has died, even if no doctor has formally pronounced this over his or her body, said Hagar Mizrahi, a Health Ministry official who heads the panel created in response to a crisis now in its third month.
“Designation of death is never an easy matter, and certainly not in the situation embroiling us,” she told Israel’s Kan radio. Her committee, she said, addresses “the desire of the families of loved ones abducted to Gaza to know as much as possible”.
Of some 240 people kidnapped, 108 were freed by Hamas in return for the release by Israel of scores of Palestinian detainees as well as boosted humanitarian aid shipments to Gaza.
Since the truce, Israeli authorities have declared seven civilians and an army colonel as dead in captivity. Israel says 137 hostages remain in Gaza, their condition not always known.
This has not been confirmed by Hamas. It has previously said dozens of hostages were killed in Israeli airstrikes, has threatened to execute hostages itself and suggested that some hostages were in the hands of other armed Palestinian factions.
Hostages have been kept incommunicado despite Israel’s calls on the Red Cross to arrange visits and verify their wellbeing.
Mizrahi said she and her fellow panelists – a forensic pathologist and a physical trauma clinician – have been watching clips shot by the Hamas attackers themselves, cellphone video by Palestinian spectators and CCTV footage of the hostage-taking “again and again, frame by frame”.
That has allowed them to map out life-threatening wounds and spot any cessation of breathing or other essential reflexes.
Additional considerations have been hostages’ rough handling by captors, the reduced chances of them getting adequate medical care in Gaza and accounts of deaths by former fellow hostages.
The panel has been consulting with a religious expert, she said, given Jewish laws that prevent a widow from remarrying unless her bereavement is formally recognized by authorities.
“We assemble the overall picture,” Mizrahi said, adding that every determination of death has to be unanimously agreed upon.
The risk of getting it wrong was laid bare in the case of Emily Hand, who went missing on Oct. 7 and whose father Tom was initially informed “unofficially” that she had been killed. The girl had in fact been taken hostage and was freed in the truce.
Being denied a burial may pose a psychological barrier for grieving kin, however.
Last week, the Israeli military – which has rabbinical and intelligence units scouring Gaza battlefields for information about the fate of lost soldiers, as well as remains of hostages – declared dead Shaked Gal, a conscript missing since Oct. 7.
His mother Sigalit said in a Facebook post addressed to the 19-year-old that she would not observe the traditional Jewish mourning period for him “until your body is returned”.
Mizrahi said her panel had yet to encounter a family that refused to accept its determination, but was prepared for that.
“We are here to provide the professional side. We do not, God forbid, debate or confront the families regarding their decision, and we accept their choices with understanding,” she said.
The military has recovered the bodies of one captive soldier and two civilian hostages, and freed one soldier in a rescue operation.