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Wednesday, February 25, 2004

"They will hug a foot if that is all there is"

NY Times profiles Israeli pathologist

Just when I said the Times is rotten to the core, they come up with this moving description of the work of a pathologist who must identify the dead and inform their relatives . . .
JAFFA, Israel, Feb. 23 — After the suicide bombing on Sunday, the flesh and the bones were collected from the bus and the street, and delivered here to Israel's lone forensic center. As always, Dr. Jehuda Hiss, the director, carried out his grim duty of piecing together the broken bodies and tending to the raw emotions of the living.

The Palestinian who blew himself up on a Jerusalem bus had a relatively small explosive, yet it tore apart some bodies so completely that it was not clear how many people had been killed. The police announced seven dead, plus the bomber. But when Dr. Hiss and his team had developed genetic profiles on the remains, they discovered an eighth.

"This person must have been sitting next to the bomber," Dr. Hiss, Israel's chief pathologist for 16 years, said in his matter-of-fact tone. "We could not have identified him without DNA tests."

Israel has seen more than 100 suicide bombings in three years, accounting for roughly half of the more than 900 Israelis killed in the violence. The country has developed a vast response network in which Dr. Hiss plays a unique role. All the dead are brought here to the National Center of Forensic Medicine. He has missed only one bombing, while traveling in the United States, and has been intimately involved in dealing with the dismembered victims and the shattered families in every other attack.

After the dead are identified, Dr. Hiss's job is tougher still. He informs the relatives, who can be angry and irrational in their grief.

"With bombings, it is necessary to do this because someone leaves home at 8 a.m. and is killed a half-hour later," he said. "The families want to know if they suffered. They want to know exactly how they died. I'm always surprised that they ask so many detailed questions."

The families wait, sometimes through the night, at the center, which was not built for the crowds of 200 or more that descend after major attacks. The relatives once spilled out onto the grounds. Today, a center for families has been built next to the morgue, easing the crowding, if not the trauma.

The most awkward moment comes when families ask to see the victim. "I say it is better to remember them when they were living," Dr. Hiss said.

About a quarter of the families insist. "I explain it's only part of the body. Still, they will hug a foot if that is all there is," he said.

He used to reject such requests, but psychologists recommended otherwise. "The families want to touch the body one last time to prepare for the separation. If they don't see them, it is like a virtual death. They are right to ask for this," he said.
Writer Greg Myre finds it necessary to insert the number of Palestinian dead, no matter how awkward it may be to do so:
Few Israelis refer to the institute by its formal name. Most call it Abu Kabir, a reference to the wealthy family that lived on the grounds until the Middle East war that erupted in 1948 at Israel's founding.

On the Palestinian side, where more than 2,600 have been killed in the past three years, the dead are delivered to morgues at local hospitals, and there is no central forensic institute.

"This is not traditional, straightforward, forensic medicine," Dr. Yoram Blachar, head of the Israel Medical Association, said of the Israeli center. "The suicide bombings are very emotional and upsetting. The families have extreme reactions and have to be treated in a most sensitive manner."
Is it worthwhile to write to the Times to point out that almost 10% of the Palestinian dead were killed by other Palestinians? That his figure includes the suicide bombers themselves, bomb-makers who had accidents, and Palestinians killed by gangs of terrorists for being suspected of collaborating with Israel?

I'm sure they at least count the number of emails. Write to Daniel Okrent, NYTimes Public Editor, at public@nytimes.com