Israel seeks lost children of Yemen exodus

Immigrant mystery: Graves to be opened in dispute over what happened to Oriental Jews who disappeared in the 1950s

PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

Forty-year-old graves are to be opened by an Israeli government commission of inquiry in an effort to resolve the bitter dispute over what happened to the children of Yemeni Jews who allegedly disappeared soon after arriving in the 1950s.

The controversy, which has already led to a gun-battle between militant Yemenites and police, is likely to deepen with the revelation that autopsies were secretly carried out on the bodies of children who died. Ami Hovav, an investigator with the government commission, told Israeli television: "Post-mortems were performed on the Yemenite children. That's why they were not returned to their parents."

Some 50,000 Jews came to Israel from Yemen in the 1950s and many of them and their families believe passionately that thousands of their children were abducted by the authorities of the day. They accuse them of allowing Jewish families from Europe to adopt children, whose parents were then told they were dead.

The digging up of graves is at the request of the Yemeni community. Examination by radar reportedly shows that some of the graves are empty. If this turns out to be true then Yemenites will see this as evidence of mass kidnapping.

"We have been authorised to open unmarked graves where Yemenite children are suspected to have been buried," said the retired judge who heads the commission, Yehuda Cohen.

Most controversially, an investigation by Israel's commercial television station says that medical experiments were carried out on Yemenite children. Dr Ya'akov Rotamm, director of a children's hospital, is reported to have said that doctors injected healthy children in order to evaluate the level of phosphorus in their spinal fluid. Dov Levitan, the foremost Israeli specialist on the immigration of the Yemenite Jews, said the allegation is "sick" and without foundation.

The dispute over the fate of the children has already exploded into violence. In 1994 Rabbi Uzi Meshulam and 40 Yemenite followers protesting over "the sale of 4,000 Yemenite children" in the 1950s, armed themselves with sub-machine guns and barricaded themselves in a house and synagogue in the town of Yehud near Ben-Gurion airport outside Tel Aviv. The siege ended after two months in an exchange of fire with police in which one man was killed. Rabbi Meshulam was sentenced to eight years in jail.

Previous investigations have revealed that most of the missing children were not kidnapped, but died in hospital. In the confusion of the camps for newly-arrived immigrants, many of whom were sick when they arrived, parents sometimes could not be found. A few healthy children whose parents could not be located were sent to orphanages or were adopted.

The dispute over what happened to the missing children has become a symbol of the discontent of Oriental Jews at what they see as the hostility or indifference of the Israeli establishment.

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