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Israeli Prime Minister Opens Probe Into Alleged Yemeni Children Abductions


An unsolved mystery is making headlines again in Israel. It's about Jewish immigrants from Arab countries whose newborn babies vanished from Israeli hospitals in the 1950s. Many of the immigrants believe their babies were secretly put up for adoption. They've been looking for the answers for decades. Now the Israeli prime minister says he wants to uncover the truth. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Tzvia Okashi was among the tens of thousands of Jews from Yemen who came to the young state of Israel in the late 1940s and '50s. She says she went to a clinic to give birth, and nurses there took her newborn baby away. They said her baby was ill. And three days later they told her the baby died, but she never saw the body or a grave.

TZVIA OKASHI: (Through interpreter) My husband and my mother went to the interior ministry to see if she had a death certificate. They said there's nothing.

ESTRIN: Her story is one of many in the Yemeni immigrant community. Some allege a conspiracy that officials gave their kids up for adoption to European-born Jews because the Israeli establishment believed their children would be better off that way. Many in the community have been trying to prove this conspiracy for decades.

SHLOMI HATUKA: They couldn't do anything. They were so, so weak socially. They couldn't do anything.

ESTRIN: That's Shlomi Hatuka. His grandmother's newborn girl also disappeared around that time. Now he spearheads an organization that's collecting testimonies like Okashi's from Yemini and other Middle Eastern families.

Over the years, several government commissions concluded that babies did vanish, but most probably died. That conclusion doesn't satisfy Hatuka and other activists. Their quest to collect testimonies has gotten a lot of media attention here recently, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken up their case.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: The summer, he said it was time to declassify documents from a 2001 state inquiry. "I am committed to discovering the truth," he said. Israeli historian Dov Levitan has researched these cases.

DOV LEVITAN: There's going to be a terrible disappointment among the Yemenites because what they think is documents will be published actually showing that criminal acts had been done. There are no such documents.

ESTRIN: Some see politics at work in the fact that Netanyahu has embraced these immigrants' grievances.

LEVITAN: It's very important for him to have their support and to show that his understanding - he understands it, yes.

ESTRIN: Many of the immigrant families have helped elect Netanyahu and the right wing, historian Levitan says. Their disdain for the left wing has a lot to do with how they were treated when they arrived in the country in the 1950s. They feel the left wing that ruled Israel back then treated them as second-class citizens.


ESTRIN: On the Israeli TV program "Meet the Press," Tzachi Hanegbi, the minister Netanyahu tasked to comb through the classified documents, says he'll recommend they be published in a few months. He said something no other high ranking official has said before though without providing proof.


TZACHI HANEGBI: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: He said, quote, "there was a theft of many hundreds of children intentionally." Many in the immigrant community say they don't need to wait for the documents to be released. They just want the government to officially acknowledge what happened and help bring closure to their saga. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.