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ZAKA By: Steven Marc Friedman
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, May 05, 2003


They have become a familiar image beaming from TV screens into our living rooms and kitchens: a bus or café is blown up somewhere in Jerusalem, Haifa, or most recently at Mike’s Place, a seaside café in Tel Aviv. People are burnt, others bleeding from wounds created by screws and bolts packed into the explosive, bleeding from stumps that were intact limbs seconds earlier. Police, paramedics, and military are on the scene, rescuing those who can still be saved, restoring order in the midst of chaos. A fourth group of men is there as well. They wear fluorescent yellow-green vests, black kippot (skullcap), tzitzit (four cornered garment) and payes (side curls); they carry spatulas and plastic bags and scrape up bits of flesh and blood from the scene. The men from ZAKA meticulously locate every lost limb and digit, scrape up every bit of flesh, and sponge up blood from the pavement. Why would anyone volunteer for such macabre duties?

Zelig Feiner, the ZAKA spokeman, is a clean-shaven man in his late twenties. His native language is Hebrew but he speaks fluent English with a British accent. He wears a rumpled black suit over a white dress shirt, and intermittently responds to messages from an earpiece by speaking into the microphone in his sleeve. A black skullcap sits atop his head.

He takes me to a nondescript, shed-like structure tucked away among low-rise buildings and parking garages near the orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Meah Sharim. We make our way to the entrance to the ZAKA operational command post. We pass through an unmarked doorway that opens at the foot of a steep staircase.  There is little overhead clearance along the stairs. Much of the ceiling space is taken up by a long, plastic ventilation hose, about eighteen inches wide, used to pipe air into the cramped room below. I descend into a bunker dating to the 1948 War of Independence.

The Jerusalem Command Centre has all the comfort of an abandoned mineshaft. One instinctively stoops in the subterranean chamber. The gathering area resembles a city bus, though reduced in height, width and length by approximately twenty percent. The room is lined with narrow benches. The ceiling has bare fluorescent lighting, and a few amber and red lights, presumably for easy transition to night vision.  Shelves are stacked with yellow helmets, plastic spatulas, sponges, clear screw-top specimen containers, protective rubber gloves and plastic coveralls. A small alcove off to the side serves as office and communications centre.

Jewish law regards the human body as holy. Identification and proper burial of human flesh is a sacred task at the core of the Jewish religious doctrine. The Torah reserves the phrase ‘chesed shel emet’ – ‘kindness of truth’ - for the observance of the rights of the dead, a favor that can never be repaid, and by definition altruistic. It tells of Moses pausing to collect the bones of Joseph, before leading the exodus of Israelites out of slavery in Egypt.  The modern theology translates it in more secular terms –‘respect for the living demands respect for the dead’. When Space Shuttle Columbia exploded on Feb 01 2002, killing all seven astronauts including Israeli Ilan Ramon, the Israel Defense Forces sent a Military Rabbinate representative to Texas, to assist in identifying body parts that had tumbled to earth.[i]

ZAKA is an acronym for Zihui Korbanot Ason, Hebrew for ‘Identification of Victims of Catastrophe.’ It started as an ad hoc emergency group on July 6, 1989 after 25-year old Abd al-Hadi Suleiman Ghneim, of Gaza's Nuseirat camp seized the steering wheel of the Egged bus No. 405 going from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and sent it crashing over a steep precipice, killing seventeen passengers and injuring many more.[ii] Religious volunteers from a community on the hill above rushed to help the victims. They subsequently provided assistance in identification of the passengers many of whom were burned beyond recognition. ZAKA developed into a formal organization in 1995, and was approved as Israel’s official organization for evacuation of victims of unnatural death.  ZAKA became the United Nations Volunteer Organization of the Year in 2001. The organization is run on an entirely volunteer basis. Its operating expenses, approximately four million Shekels (about one and a quarter million dollars) per year, come almost entirely from donations, raised chiefly in the United States.

Feiner explains: “5- 7 % of our work involves identification of bodies after terrorist attacks. The rest of the work deals with motor vehicle accidents, homicides, suicides, fire rescue, searching for missing people, etc.” After a terrorist attacks, volunteers stay at the scene after the police and the ambulances have left, patiently scraping all the remaining bits of flesh and sponging the blood off the sidewalks and buildings so that the dead can be buried in full accordance with the Jewish tradition.  Every piece of tissue, no matter how small, is delivered to the Israeli Institute of Forensic Medicine for identification. The goal is to match body parts, including blood, and to bury a whole body. Unmatched parts are buried in a common grave. People ask what happens to the body of terrorists.  The response is that the Torah directs their conduct: Each human being is created in the image of God. The bodies of the suicide bombers are treated respectfully, put in plastic bags, and given to the authorities.

ZAKA is composed of over six hundred volunteers, working in six divisions that cover the entire country. Volunteers carry pagers and cell phones. Given the size of the network, a ZAKA member is often the first person on the scene after a bombing. The volunteers join the organization for various reasons. Fulfilling a sacred task is the primary motivation for many, however for some of them it is a way of fulfilling their obligation to the state, in lieu of military service. Some had been present at terrorist attacks or lost friends or family, and joined ZAKA to make a contribution. Others do so to mitigate their feeling of helplessness in the face of the harsh Israeli reality. “We are a Humanitarian Volunteer Organization,” says Feiner. We are not a religious organization.” However, most of the volunteers are orthodox Jews.

The organization struggles to dispel the perception that dealing with the dead is their main role. The ZAKA emblem is a shield emblazoned with “Kindness of Truth” in Hebrew, and “Search and Rescue” in English. ZAKA personnel are first and foremost trained medical “first responders” who provide emergency care. ZAKA's newest program is the motorcycle fast response unit. The motorcycle fast response unit was inspired by the Israeli Pizza delivery business. “Ambulances are unable to navigate through the traffic in crowded neighborhoods and through districts such as Meah Sharim.”

The mopeds save lives. “If someone’s heart has stopped, and is not pumping oxygen, brain damage will set in within 4 – 6 minutes. It is essential to initiate CPR and provide oxygen within that critical period.” The organization has thirty-two mopeds and hopes to increase this number significantly. In a joint study conducted by ZAKA and Israel’s Ministry of Health, researchers found that motorcycle-driven first aid units are typically able to reach the scene of an emergency in less than half the time it takes for a conventional 4-wheel emergency vehicle.[iii] The mopeds look like oversized Vespa scooters with large steel boxes the size of a small bar fridge, fixed to the rear seat. A red flashing light on top of the box adds to the image of an overgrown child’s toy. One of the First Responders opens the box and displays the contents - it is clear that this is a business for grown-ups. The mopeds carry compressed oxygen tanks, oxygen masks, intravenous lines and fluid packs, even a defibrillator. ZAKA volunteers will resuscitate, and then search a bomb scene for severed body parts that might potentially be rushed to the hospitals for potential surgical reimplantation on the victim. The needs of the living are fully attended to before attention is turned to dignifying the dead.

ZAKA training includes a three-month forensics program. The curriculum is demanding and the rigorous psychological screening hard to pass. On average 60 % of applicants fail. Coursework consists of identification, forensics, DNA technology, finger printing. Site management is an important skill, as it is crucial to minimize disruption to the evidence. ZAKA volunteers work closely with the police, and have earned their trust. “We are technically a subdivision of the police. We are allowed to do site identification.” The Medical First Responder skills course requires a further 120 hours of instruction. There is also a minimum of 80 hours of training in rescue.

Preparation for response to biological attack during Gulf War 2 was thorough. (In late August 2002, the Israeli Government initiated smallpox vaccination of all emergency workers, including ZAKA volunteers.)  Feiner explained: “Volunteers [were] issued with special chemical and biological protective suits. Our volunteers have  had special training with the army home front command for biological and chemical attack, and [would] be the first and only people going in to the scene until the army gets to the scene.” ZAKA response teams would arrive on motorcycle in heavy protective suits, masks, footwear and gloves, and would provide medical first response prior to transfer to hospital. Upon arrival at hospital, patients would  be stripped of all clothing and personal possessions, which would be tagged and identified by ZAKA volunteers. (ZAKA personnel would also manage handling of  the dead. Bodies would be brought to collection stations manned by three member committees made up of a lawyer, police officer, and rabbi. The teams would be charged with the determination of the identity of each victim. In the case of disagreement, the case would be brought to a higher district committee of similar composition.)

ZAKA volunteers are exposed to both physical and psychological risk hazards. There have been incidences of double suicide bombings where rescuers have been killed on scene after the second bomb was detonated. Rescuers have been taken hostage, and two have been killed.

Feiner explained: “One volunteer was killed on duty in a double suicide bombing attack in Jerusalem town center, on  December 1, 2001. Twelve minutes after the suicide bombers exploded,  a car full of explosives was detonated in a near by side side-street where rescue vehicles were parked. Opposite the exploding car was a ZAKA ambulance. ZAKA rescuer Chayim Yurevitch was seriously injured.”

Another ZAKA rescuer was killed on March 9, 2002. “A ZAKA Jerusalem volunteer was in Netanyah on holiday with his family. A few minutes before the start of Sabbath, he received an alert on his ZAKA pager that a shooting was in progress  next to the Jeremy Hotel. Yichya knew that the shooting was right outside the hotel and he ran out in order to save lives. Unfortunately he ran right in to the terrorists hand, was taken hostage and shot dead.”

Psychological trauma is far more common. ZAKA volunteers routinely confront amputations, burnt limbs, headless babies still strapped in their prams, bits of flesh in the trees, etc. They are also subjected to maladaptive reactions by victims’ families. They often report bizarre behavior such as mockery, laughing, even violence. The volunteers are trained to provide on-scene physical and psychological support. However, their own coping abilities are affected and ZAKA rescuers often have difficulty relating to their families after an event. As most of the rescuers have been raised in  environments of Israeli machismo and traditional orthodox Jewish upbringing, they are reluctant to seek psychotherapy for fear of embarrassment and ostracism by their colleagues. Spouses of ZAKA volunteers have reported withdrawal on the part of rescuers and dysfunctional behavior at home. The ZAKA leadership has become sensitive to this issue and now regularly runs workshops to address the psychological fallout on volunteers.


[i] Haaretz, Feb 02, 2003

[ii] http://www.passia.org/palestine_facts/chronology/19891990.htm

[iii] Zaka Israel http://www.zakaisrael.org

Dr. Steven Marc Friedman is Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto. He practices emergency medicine in downtown Toronto.




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