Israel turns to archaeologists to find victims of Hamas attack

Archaeological techniques have proved effective in identifying burnt victims of Hamas's attack on Israel (GIL COHEN-MAGEN)
Archaeological techniques have proved effective in identifying burnt victims of Hamas's attack on Israel (GIL COHEN-MAGEN)

Moshe Ajami is no stranger to human remains. But until October, the bits of bone and teeth he handled were centuries, if not millennia, old.

Now, he and a team of archaeologists from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) have turned their skills to finding and identifying the victims of Hamas's bloody October 7 attack.

Despite using the same techniques, this is grim work compared to their usual digs.

"We needed to go into the burned houses and start doing the archaeological work, which ordinarily is in a pastoral (setting), outdoors, we excavate antiquities, everyone smiling," said Ajami, a career archaeologist and deputy director of the IAA.

In the weeks following the attack, paramedics, police and Zaka, an Israeli organisation specialising in collecting human remains, combed over the devastation in southern Israel's towns, cities and kibbutzim.

However, the scope and scale of Hamas's attack, in which Israeli officials say around 1,200 people, mostly civilians, were killed, has presented a challenge in identifying the bodies of the dead, many of whom were set alight, and locating those still missing.

"Someone in the army thought it was a good idea to invite the IAA, whose expertise is in finding partial human remains -- skeletons, including those that are burned," said Ajami.

Archaeologists were first called to Kfar Aza, a kibbutz bordering the Gaza Strip that was attacked by Hamas.

Sifting through soil and ash, they apply decades of experience in "how to identify the smallest fragment of bone in an archaeological excavation" to locate the remains of people killed in the Hamas attacks, Ajami told AFP during an interview at the IAA's headquarters.

- Sifting for teeth -

More than a month on, approximately 20 people are still listed as missing -- neither confirmed dead, nor among the approximately 240 hostages taken by Hamas in Gaza, according to Israeli officials.

Ajami said that forensic archaeology rarely deals "with an ongoing, contemporary disaster".

"It's a different mission to try and find skeletons of missing persons in that hell, while 24/7 there are explosions and shelling all around us, and you need to do the mission. But we didn't stop for a moment."

On Thursday, archaeologists and forensics teams scoured burnt-out homes in Nir Oz, a kibbutz in southern Israel where a quarter of its 400 residents were killed, wounded, or taken hostage to Gaza.

The grim work's methodology bears passing similarity to an archaeological dig.

"We divide the house into several locations and start digging," said Ari Levy, an IAA archaeologist working at Nir Oz.

Incinerated cars and the rooms of torched homes are broken down into grids, with the debris sifted for bone fragments and teeth. Any find sites are then meticulously documented.

"All these actions increase our possibility of identifying the remains and the findings we are looking for," said Levy.

Families are asked about metal implants and prosthetics or jewellery that might help identify remains. The emotional toll is heavy.

"We know who we're looking for, we know their faces in many cases, the names, the families, and the feeling here is... difficult, because we can't detach emotionally," Levy said.

Ajami said teeth are especially important "because you can extract DNA from them even when the skeleton is burned."

- Drones, lasers -

The remnants are documented, catalogued, then sent to an army facility in central Israel where forensics teams try to identify the person.

Of the roughly 60 people whose remains he and his team have found, at least 10 have been identified and laid to rest, Ajami said.

The IAA is also planning to use drones, lasers and other technology in the modern archaeologist's toolkit to generate high-resolution 3D images of the scenes of the attacks.

"I never believed I would have to do something like this, and I don't think anyone in the world thought that something like this would happen," Ajami said.

But after 30 years of field archaeology "all of that knowledge that I've accumulated is all funnelled into this mission".

"If we hadn't come and lent a hand there, they never would have found these people. It's a big privilege for me."