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“Organs looted from our sons”: Palestinians accuse the Israeli army of selling the organs of its victims

Donald Boström

Editorial Note: This article is translated from the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet by Donna Anziner. (See here for the original article.) It has provoked angry denials from Israel. Boström has stated to the government-run Israeli radio that "It concerns me, to the extent that I want [Palestinian accusations of IDF theft of organs for harvesting] to be investigated, that’s true. ... But whether it’s true or not — I have no idea, I have no clue.” The logic of the article is as follows: the recent arrest of Levy Izhak Rosenbaum for illegal organ trade in connection to other arrests among prominent figures in an Orthodox Jewish community in the US; Israel's record of needing organs for transplanting; Israel's record of ignoring international conventions on illegal organ trade; long term complaints by Palestinians about Israeli practices of harvesting organs from Palestinians; his own experience as a witness to an incident in 1992; the Israeli practice of performing autopsies on murdered Palestinians in the absence of compelling reasons and against the wishes of the Palestinians; returning the bodies sewed up, followed by immediate burial under Israeli supervision. 


This is  a powerful circumstantial case and in our opinion warrants an international investigation. See also Alison Weir's powerful article on this topic.

August, 17, 2009  

"I am what you can call a 'matchmaker'”, said Levy Izhak Rosenbaum from Brooklyn, USA, in a secret recording by an FBI-agent whom he believed to be a client. Ten days later, at the end of July this year, Rosenbaum was arrested in connection with a massive corruption ring uncovered in New Jersey: rabbis, congressmen and entrusted officials had for years been busy with money laundering and the illegal organ trade, which now ended up like a Sopranos episode.  Rosenbaum’s matchmaking had nothing to do with romance and everything to do with buying and selling, on the black market,  kidneys from Israel. According to his own statements, he buys organs from poor people in Israel for $10,000 and sells them back to desperate patients in the US for $160,000. The legal waiting period for kidneys is nine years on average. 

Levy Izhak Rosenbaum is driven away by FBI agents. Rosenbaum was allegedly a middleman in the illegal organ trade. Photo: AP

The accusations have shaken the American transplant industry. Should this be true,  it would be the first time organ trafficking has been documented in the US, according to experts cited by the newspaper New Jersey Real-Time News.

On the question of how many organs were sold, Rosenbaum says: "Quite a lot." And he boasts, "I have never failed." His business was carried out over a very long period of time.

Francis Delmonici, a professor in transplant surgery at Harvard, and member of the Board at the National Kidney Foundation’s Board of Directors, is quoted in the same newspaper, saying that the same type of organ trafficking which takes place in Israel, also takes place in other parts of the world. Delmonici says that of the 63,000 kidney transplants in the world, approximately 10% are illegal.

Hot countries for that type of illegal trade are Pakistan, the Philippines and China, where it is believed that organs are taken from executed prisoners. But strong suspicion also exists in Palestine, where people believe that their young men, captured as prisoners, have, as in China and Pakistan, been taken as organ donors and that they were later executed. This is a very serious allegation that raises so many questions, that the ICJ, International Court of Justice, should absolutely open an investigation over the possibility of war crimes perpetrated by Israel.

Israel has time and again been at the forefront of criticism when it comes to its unethical way of handling organs and transplants. Countries like France have suspended their  cooperation on organs with Israel since the beginning of the 90s, and the Jerusalem Post wrote: ”Other countries in Europe are expected to follow France’s example shortly”.

Half of the new kidneys that Israelis have received since the beginning of the year 2000 have been illegally bought from Turkey, Eastern Europe or South America. The Israeli health-care authorities have a complete knowledge of the activity, but do nothing to stop it. In 2003, at a conference, it was revealed that Israel is the only western country where doctors do not condemn the illegal trade of organs or take any legal measures against doctors who have conducted such illegal operations. To the contrary, according to Dagens Nyheter (December 5, 2003), the Chief Doctors of the largest hospitals are involved in the majority of illegal transplant cases, .

In an attempt to fill the need for organs in the country, Israel’s then health minister, Ehud Olmert, ordered a large campaign in the summer of 1992, to get the Israeli population to come forward as organ donors. One half million pamphlets were distributed to local newspapers where citizens were encouraged to write to donate their organs after their death. Ehud Olmert was the first to write his name down.

Only a couple of weeks later, the Jerusalem Post wrote that the campaign had been very successful. Not less than 35 000 persons had enrolled, when usually it’s about 500 a month. In the same article, the journalist Judy Siegel, wrote that the gap between offer and demand was still extensive. 500 persons were queuing for a kidney transplant, but only 124 could receive surgery. Out of 45 persons in need of a new liver, only three had a chance to get an operation in Israel.

At the same time when that campaign was going on, young Palestinians were disappearing and were being returned at night to their villages, five days later, dead and ripped up.

The story of the ripped up bodies terrified the populations in Gaza and the West Bank. There was a story of a dramatic increase of young men’s disappearance, with the subsequent nightly funerals of autopsied young men.

I was in the area working on a book when I was contacted several times by UN staff members who were worried about the situation. Those who contacted me said that the theft of organs indeed took place, but that there was nothing they could do. On assignment for a TV company, I traveled around and spoke with a great number of Palestinian families in the West Bank and Gaza, who declared that their sons had been robbed of their organs before they were killed. One of the examples I came across on that gruesome journey was the young stone thrower Bilal Achmed Ghanan.

It was close to midnight when the sound of the engines of cars coming from the Israeli military column was heard in the outskirts of the small village called Imatin on the northern part of the West Bank. The two thousand villagers were awake and stood silently, shadowed in the dark. Some were posted on the roofs, others behind their curtains, houses or trees that could give them protection in the darkness under the curfew but could give them a good view over what would become the cemetery for the village’s first martyr. The military had cut off all electrical power around the village and the area was restricted to the military not a single cat could move outside without risking its life. The darkness’ numbing silence was only broken by quiet sobbing, and I don’t remember if we were shivering because of the cold or because of the suspense. Five days earlier, on May 13th, 1992, an Israeli special force unit had waited in an ambush at the village’s carpentry shop. The person the special forces were looking for was the young 19-year old Bilal Achmed Ghanan, whom they had orders to neutralize, as he was one those active young Palestinians who rendered the Israeli occupation forces’ lives miserable by throwing stones.

Bilal Ghanan was one of the leading stone throwers and had been on the wanted list for a couple of years. This meant that he and other wanted stone throwing boys lived under the bare sky up in the Nablus Mountains. To be captured implied death and all the stories about previous torture scenes did not improve things. So they remained in the mountains. But for one reason or another, Bilal came down from the mountains one day and wandered unprotected into the village, passing the carpenter’s house on that unlucky day in mid-May. Why he did come down on that particular day, not even Talal, his older brother, could say. Perhaps there was a lack of food and they were short of supplies.

Young Palestinians throw stones and glass bottles against Israeli soldiers in the northern part of the West Bank. In that area Bilal Achmed Ghanan was shot and slit wide open at the hospital. “Our sons are used as spare organs”, say Palestinians. Photo: Donald Boström

Everything happened according to plans for the Israeli Special Forces unit. They stubbed out their cigarettes, took away the cans of Coca Cola and took aim calmly and quietly through the broken window. When Bilal was near enough, they only had to squeeze the trigger. He got shot the first time in the chest. According to the villagers who witnessed the incident, he was also shot after that, once in each leg. After which, two soldiers ran out from the carpentry shop and shot him twice in the stomach. Finally, they took Bilal by the feet and dragged him down the 20 steps of stone of the carpentry. The villagers also say that afterwards, people from the UN and the Red Crescent who happened to be in the area and had heard the shots came to take care of the wounded.

The discussion over who would take care of the victim ended when the Israeli forces took charge of the badly hurt Bilal, loaded him into a jeep and drove away to the village’s outskirts. There waited a military helicopter that took Bilal away to an unknown destination.

Five days later, he was back in the darkness, dead and wrapped up in green hospital cloths. When the military column, that had come to get Bilal from the autopsy center Abu Kabir outside Tel Aviv, stopped by the place where Bilal would be placed to rest, someone recognized the Israeli military leader by the name of Captain Yahya. In the dark, a person whispered “The worst of them all” in my ear. After Captain Yahya’s men had unloaded the body and exchanged the green cloth for a light colored cotton cloth, a few male relatives were picked up to complete the job by digging earth and mixing cement. 

Together with the sharp sound of the spades, some laughs were heard on the part of the soldiers who waited to go home as they exchanged jokes with each other. When Bilal was lowered down to the ground, his chest was exposed and it became suddenly clear to those who were present what type of abuse he had been subjected to. Bilal was by no means the first person who was buried with a stitched up body from the stomach to the neck, but speculation about the purpose jumpstarted.

Bilal Achmed Ghanan, 19 years old, was shot and taken by Israeli soldiers. His body was later returned stitched up again from belly to neck. Photo: Donald Boström  

The victimized Palestinian families on the West Bank and Gaza were convinced of what had happened to their sons. "Our sons are used as unwilling organ donors," said the relatives of Khaled from Nablus to me. The same went with Raed from Jenin and the cousins to Machmod and Nafes from Gaza, who all disappeared over a number of days and had returned at night, dead and autopsied.

Why would they keep their bodies up to five days before we can bury them? What happened to the bodies during that time? And why were they autopsied when the cause of death was evident, and in all cases, against our will? And why are the areas closed by the military during the funeral? And why is the electrical power cut off?

Nafe's uncle had many questions and he was very upset. The relatives of the killed Palestinian men did not have any doubts any longer.

The spokesman for the Israeli army said that, on the contrary, the allegations of organ theft were fabrications by the Palestinians. He claimed that all the Palestinians who were killed were routinely autopsied.

Bilal Achmed Ghanem was one of the 133 Palestinians who were killed in various ways that year. According to Palestinian statistics, the reasons of death were as follows:   shot in the street, explosion, battery, tear gas, intentionally run over by a car, hanged in prison, shot at school, killed in the house, etc. Of those 133 assassinated persons of all ages from four months to 88 years old, 69 were autopsied, which is to say half of the dead. The routine autopsies carried out on dead Palestinians, as the army spokesman said, do not match  the reality in the occupied areas. The questions remain.

We know that there is a great need for organs in Israel. And we know that there is a widespread illegal organ trade under way, that it has been going on for a long time, that it takes place with the blessing of the authorities, and that high-level doctors in the largest hospitals and officials at different levels also take part in it. And we know that Palestinian young men disappeared, that they were returned five days later under mysterious circumstances at night, ripped up and stitched back.

The time has come to bring to light this macabre activity, to reveal what is going on and what has happened in the territories occupied by Israel since the beginning of the Intifada.

Donald Boström is a journalist, photographer and writer of the documentary book Inshallah (Published by Ordfront 2003).